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Lee rubs a little salt in Yankees' wound

Philadelphia's Cliff Lee said he decided not to

Philadelphia's Cliff Lee said he decided not to join the Yankees because the Phillies have a better shot to win the World Series. (Feb. 14, 2011) Credit: AP

CLEARWATER, Fla.

First day of pitchers and catchers. The spiritual kickoff to spring. A symbol of hope, renewal and redemption.

But the hot spot has changed here on Florida's Gulf Coast. Even as Hank Steinbrenner boasted Monday of his Yankees, "We're gonna be in it every year," to see true greatness, you had to make a right turn out of the ballpark that bears Steinbrenner's late father's name, head west on the Courtney Campbell Causeway and find Bright House Field.

There, at a Phillies news conference broadcast live in Philadelphia, you could hear Cliff Lee say this: "Oh, I felt like this was the best chance to win world championships. That's what it's all about.

"Obviously, I played here in the past and enjoyed myself here and thought we had a really good team at that time. Since then, they've made a couple of additions that I think have made the team that much better. I felt like if I ever got an opportunity to come back and be a part of what's going on here, I would take advantage of it, and that's why."

Ouch. An extremely painful winter for the Yankees transformed into a tough spring opener as Lee poured salt on what still is an open wound.

Was Lee offering empty words? The sort of cliches that Crash Davis taught Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham"? Perhaps. Only Lee knows why he spurned the Yankees for fewer years and fewer total dollars from the Phillies.

For sure, his family greatly enjoyed the few months they spent in Philadelphia during the 2009 season. Yet as you watched Lee occupy the middle of a podium, with Roy Halladay and Joe Blanton to his right and Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to his left, the surface evidence easily could convince you that Lee had a point.

The Yankees are holding open auditions for the last two spots in their starting rotation, and the infamously mercurial A.J. Burnett is the third starter. And ace CC Sabathia opened a door Monday that he had previously closed, refusing to rule out the possibility of opting out of his contract after this season.

Here at Phillies camp, meanwhile, the five starters were asked such pressing questions as "Have you decided on your nickname yet?" and about other great rotations - even though, as Lee said: "I think we haven't thrown a single pitch as a group yet. So it's kind of early to say we're one of the best rotations in the history of the game."

It would be wrong to label the Yankees as a franchise on the decline. With a rich farm system, they're simply facing a transition year. However, when your business model states that anything short of a World Series title constitutes failure, the agita can feel heavier than the pre-weight-loss Sabathia.

So the Phillies can celebrate this fine day, with general manager Ruben Amaro proclaiming, "It's a testament to the entire organization and the fans.'' With Halladay, the ace among aces, saying, "It's why you come to places like this, to be around the best players."

With Lee, after getting traded three times in the previous two seasons, reflecting: "It was a fun ride, and hopefully, I'll get a chance to be a little more stable about that process and get to experience some more World Series with this team hopefully multiple times."

It's the kind of stuff you usually hear at Yankees camp after they've landed their latest big catch. This time, however, the club suffered one more bite from the one who got away.

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