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The oral history of Cliff Lee, Yankees ace

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This is the story of the ultimate “What If?” in recent Yankees history

Texas Rangers v New York Yankees, Game 3 Photo by Travis Lindquist/Getty Images

Every now and then, a franchise arrives at a crossroads. One decision can change the entire trajectory of the team’s history. They’re rare, but such occasions exist. For the Yankees, they found themselves at this juncture on July 9, 2010.

They made a decision, and indeed, it changed everything.

This is the story of such a decision.

This is the story of Cliff Lee, the Yankees ace.

Part 1. The Trade

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

I sensed that Brian was getting frustrated with the Mariners. After a long night of negotiating, Cash thought he had a deal in place: Jesus Montero and David Adams would go to the Mariners, and the Yankees would get Cliff Lee. But then the teams never announced the trade, and rumblings of a hangup started floating.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager (1998-present)

Oh, God, it sucked. That day absolutely sucked. There are days on this job when you think, “We are absolutely nowhere.” That was one of them.

Jack Zduriencik, Mariners general manager (2008-2012)

Listen, I’m not the bad guy here. We had an agreement, in principle, pending medicals. Adams’ ankle was a f*cking mess, it turns out. I’ve got one shot to flip Lee, and I’m not going to rush to the finish line for a deal involving a player with a bad ankle. I had to do what’s best for the Mariners, and as bad as I wanted Montero, that meant calling up Jon and gauging his interest in getting back in the race.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

So we have this deal in place, right, and Jack calls me up and starts giving me the business: You know, David Adams hurt his ankle, and this trade is just so big, and you understand where I’m coming from Brian, don’t you? And I tell him, cut the crap. What did Texas offer? Was it Smoak?

Jack Zduriencik, Mariners general manager

Texas offered Justin Smoak.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

Jack comes back to me and says he wants either Eduardo Nunez or Ivan Nova to replace Adams. I wasn’t moving Nova, because I’m trying to add pitching here, not subtract it. Yeah, Cliff’s a world-beater, but remember, he was a rental at that point. As for Nunez, well, there was a problem upstairs...

Hal Steinbrenner, Yankees owner (2007-present)

I thought Eduardo Nunez was going to be the greatest player in baseball history.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

We had radio silence through the afternoon, so I got to work on two reports: one for if the trade gets made official, and one if it falls through. My gut said the thing fell apart, but I should have known Cash would find a way to make it work. He’s a wizard, you know? Then at about 4 PM, I get a text, it’s just two words—I’ll never forget it—it says: It’s done. The Yankees got Cliff Lee in exchange for Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez.

In a funny turn of events, the Mariners were at Yankee Stadium that night, and Lee was scheduled to pitch. He literally walks across the field, to his new clubhouse, puts on the pinstripes, and starts against his former team. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher (2010-2014)

Did I pay attention to the trade rumors? No, not at all. I was taking a nap in the visitor’s clubhouse. I told the attendant to wake me up when it was time to get ready, and just let me know who the hell I was pitching for.

Part 2. The Dynasty Run

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager (2008-2013)

Cliffy fit in from day one. He mowed down the Mariners, then went on this terrific run for us. I think he won like, 10 of his 15 starts. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do know that when he and CC were on the mound, it was like I didn’t have to manage.

CC Sabathia, Yankees pitcher (2009-2011, 2017-2019)

Yo, Cliff was an animal in 2010. My dude threw five complete games. Who the f*ck does that?

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

Yeah, Joe definitely wasn’t paying attention when I pitched. There were some games I wanted to get out in the seventh or eighth inning, like, man, I’m pretty tired. I don’t think he was even in the dugout for a few of them.

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager

Here’s a secret: When Cliffy and CC pitched, I liked to duck out and beat the traffic. I was such a boring interview that the press didn’t even notice I no-showed them.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

Even with Cliff Lee in tow, the Yankees fell a game short of the AL East title in 2010. That meant they had to play the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS.

Derek Jeter, Yankees shortstop (1995-2014)

I didn’t take that Twins series for granted. I always give 110%, hustle, and keep my head down—play the game the right way, you know?

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

The Twins, man, hahahahahahahaha. I love them so much. *lights cigar*

Ernie Johnson, TBS broadcaster

The Yankees had some pitching in that ALDS sweep. CC Sabathia had the worst game of any starter—four runs in six innings—but then, wow. Andy Pettitte threw seven innings of two-run ball, and Cliff Lee closed it out with eight innings of his own.

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

I did have a pretty good ALDS, didn’t I? I think my ALCS was even better, though.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

Lee won the ALCS for the Yankees, if you ask me. His eight scoreless innings in Game Two gave the Bombers a 2-0 lead over the Rangers, and that swung the series, as far as I’m concerned. Pettitte bent, but didn’t break in Game Three, and that was about it. The Rangers dinged up AJ Burnett in Game Four, but Sabathia closed the door in Game Five. The Yankees won back-to-back pennants, and they were set up perfectly: Cliff Lee would start Game One of the World Series against the Giants.

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager

What do I remember most about the 2010 World Series? Man, that’s tough. All of the championships had their moments. Well, the Tim Lincecum-Cliff Lee duel in Game One turned into a slugfest, that was pretty surprising. But I think you have to go with Robinson Cano taking home the MVP—what did he hit, two home runs?

Robinson Cano, Yankees second baseman (2005-present)

Two home runs and six RBI.

Andy Pettitte, Yankees pitcher (1995-2003, 2007-2013)

Man, the 2010 World Series re-energized me. My back was all sorts of messed up over the summer, and I really thought about hanging up the spikes. But Cliff showing up, getting us back to the World Series, winning another one? That was invigorating. I knew I was going to come back right then and there. The question, though, was if Cliff would.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

Cliff Lee hit free agency following the 2010 World Series, and the Yankees made it no secret that he was their top priority. Cash met Lee for an in-person conversation sometime in November, and that advanced the deal pretty quickly.

CC Sabathia, Yankees pitcher

Ask Cash or Cliff about that meeting, hahaha. That sh*t is a funny story.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

I don’t like to talk about specifics when it comes to meeting talent. I just let the player know how we view him, our appraisal of his talent so-to-speak, and how we can have a relationship—what he can do for the team, and what the team can do for him and his family.

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

Okay, so Cash visits right after Thanksgiving. I had offers from the Rangers and Phillies, and I’ll be honest, I gave Philadelphia some serious consideration. But Cash, man, he shows up and puts one of his World Series rings on the table and says, “I got you this already,” then he lays out three or four different contract offers and says, “and I’m prepared to give you this now.” It was absolutely wild, like something out of a movie. How do you say no to that?

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

Lee re-signed with the Yankees on December 15, agreeing to a seven-year, $160 million contract. The Bombers would go into the 2011 season with the same rotation that carried them to their second-straight World Series.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

Good thing Lee re-signed and Pettitte never retired. Our backup plans weren’t pretty: Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Huh, I wonder what Colon is up to these days...

Bartolo Colon, 200-game winner in the KBO, all-around folk hero

I did okay for myself.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

The 2011 season was probably Lee’s finest. He pitched to a 2.40 ERA over a whopping 232.1 innings. He just lost out to Justin Verlander in the Cy Young Award race, but the Yankees got the last laugh. They won the AL East and blew past Verlander’s Tigers in the ALDS, setting up an epic rematch with the Rangers for the pennant.

CC Sabathia, Yankees pitcher

The 2011 ALCS, isn’t that where the “F*ck ‘em up, Cliff” chant started?

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

I won’t bore you with the details about that. Everyone knows that story inside and out.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

Having dispatched the Rangers in six games, the Yankees met the Cardinals in the Fall Classic. Cliff Lee had a pitching performance for the ages, making two starts and an appearance out of the bullpen in Game Seven.

Matt Holliday, Cardinals outfielder (2009-2016)

I still have nightmares about facing Cliff Lee. He struck me out six times in that World Series. Do you know how long it takes to get over something like that? I’m not kidding. If you know, please tell me.

Part 3. The Last Gasp

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

A specter loomed over the Yankees’ champagne celebration in 2011: CC Sabathia’s opt-out clause.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

I love CC. I think he’s a tremendous competitor, a great athlete, and even better person. But I had orders to follow, and if he opted out, we weren’t going to pursue him.

Hal Steinbrenner, Yankees owner

I like yachts, so sue me.

CC Sabathia, San Francisco Giants pitcher (2012-2017)

Am I mad about how that went down in 2011? Nah. This is a business, and sh*t ain’t personal. I learned that back when Cleveland traded me. You can’t get attached to that sh*t. Did I have a chip on my shoulder though? Yes I did. Did I use that win my fourth straight World Series? Abso-f*cking-lutely.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

CC leaving the Yankees on a six-year deal with San Francisco, that was a tough blow. You hate to see such a talented group split at their peak. It sort of reminded me of The Clash breaking up. God, I miss The Clash.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

How do you replace a pitcher like CC? I didn’t think we could. Instead, I just tried to shore up the rotation. Yu Darvish was my first choice, but he went to Toronto. I lucked out getting Hiroki Kuroda, and then you just hope AJ doesn’t hurt us too badly.

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

I definitely missed CC. He’s been my dude since Cleveland, you know? It felt weird without him, but we were lucky to have such a talented roster to still win the division. I mean, Jeter was ridiculous, he hit what, .320 or something? I was like, what year is this?

Joe Giradi, Yankees manager

That 2012 team, that club was special. I remember in June when the guys rattled off 10 wins in a row. I got a little nervous when Andy broke his ankle on a comebacker, and then when Jeets had a hairline fracture in his ankle. We had such a lead that I got to rest him most of September to be ready for the postseason—Cliffy having another Cliffy season really helped with that.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

The ALDS in 2012 was one of the most thrilling spectacles you’d ever seen. It went the distance, and Cliff Lee finished it off with a complete-game shutout at Yankee Stadium. The ALCS did not go as well.

Cliff Lee, Yankees insider

That series...

Robinson Cano, Yankees second baseman

I don’t like to talk about it.

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager

It’s not what you wanted.

Derek Jeter, Yankees shortstop

I blame myself for the sweep. I basically took myself out of Game One because I told Joe I felt something tweak in my ankle. He wouldn’t let me go back out there, except for two pinch-hit appearances. I felt like I quit on the team there, especially when the offense went cold right after. I still wonder what would have happened if I just sucked it up and kept playing...

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

I didn’t pitch great, either. I was pretty rundown after the Division Series. By the time the Tigers got to me in Game Four, I was still cooked. They went off in the first inning and that was the series.

At least CC got another ring. I’m happy for him.

CC Sabathia, San Francisco Giants pitcher

Yeah, buddy! No even-year magic, just every-year CC. *holds up 2012 World Series ring*

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

After the postseason exit in 2012, we were given the directive to get under the luxury-tax threshold. That made the offseason...interesting. Let’s go with that.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

The Yankees brought back three of their own pitchers in short order: Pettite, Rivera, and Kuroda. I suspect that would have been enough to satisfy Cashman under Steinbrenner’s mandate, with some depth pieces here or there. Then news came that Alex Rodriguez needed hip surgery and all of a sudden, Brian had to go find a third baseman.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

I found out about A-Rod’s surgery earlier than the media did, obviously. But that was tough to keep quiet. You start asking around teams for the third basemen, or contacting agents about their guys, and reporters start digging. I’ll tell you one funny story about that period, though, before getting Young, I came real close to signing Kevin Youkilis. Cliff talked me out of it, though, he said to go after Young—they must have been friends or something—and I trust his opinion.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

The Yankees flipped Manny Banuelos to Texas for Michael Young in a deal that was excortiated at the time. Young had a pretty good season, though, and he, Robbie, and Cliff helped keep the Yankees afloat through the trade deadline.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

What you have to understand about 2013 is that the dynasty team was at the end of the line. Jeter and Pettitte were breaking down, and I had to claim a warm body off the waiver wire basically every other day. The stress really got to Joe.

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager

I lost track of who was who. I started calling everyone “Hey, guy” because by the time I learned his name, Cash had already designated him for assignment to bring in somebody else.

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

The 2013 trade deadline, that was a big motivator. Getting Soriano and Garza from Chicago was huge. Before that, we were wondering if we had it in us to make a Wild Card run. Then Sori started mashing dingers and Garza took some of the load off Andy.

Matt Garza, Yankees pitcher (2013)

Cliff Lee was the best teammate I ever had. I know we only played half a season together, but he was an absolute inspiration. That Wild Card Game was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I hope I made him proud.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

Fueled by their trade deadline acquisitions, the Yankees went on a remarkable run in the second half. They clinched the second Wild Card, setting up a one-game playoff against Cleveland, with Cliff Lee on the mound. Imagine the drama, Lee pitching with the season on the line against his former team, where it all began, where he won the Cy Young. And he turned in a performance for the ages.

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

Listen, I had a job to do. I couldn’t let Mo and Pettitte go out missing the playoffs. It was never a question.

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager

People are always going to question it, you know, Should I have taken Cliff out? Would that have changed anything? I get it; I really do. But Cliff was in complete control of that game. When he got back to the dugout, he’d give me that look...Man, that still gives me the heebie jeebies.

Derek Jeter, Yankees shortstop

I’ve been on the field behind some incredible pitching performances. Lee’s Wild Card Game ranks near the top: a one-hitter, 17 strikeouts, 130 pitches. He put us on his back and carried us to the ALDS.

Mariano Rivera, Yankees closer

What he did for us, man, that was special. It was always a blessing to watch Cliff pitch, but especially that night in particular.

Michael Brantley, Indians outfielder (2009-2018)

I had the only hit in that game, and I still think it was an accident. I tried to check my swing and the ball went into play, so I just ran like hell and beat the throw. Lee was just on another level that night.

Robinson Cano, Yankees second baseman

I just wish we could have made something of that win, you know? I feel like we let Cliff down.

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

So, we get swept by Boston in the ALDS and my arm never really recovered from that game, but I don’t regret it. No, no regret. I gave everything I had in that game. That’s what I came here for, right?

Part 4. Aftermath

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

Sh*t hit the fan after the 2013 playoffs. First Joe jumped ship, then Robbie made us wait out his free agency. We gave him an offer early, and he kept shopping it around, trying to find someone to beat it. That obviously never came.

Jack Zduriencik, Mariners general manager (2008-2012)

The Mariners canned me after the 2012 season, so I never got a chance to offer Robinson Cano a 10-year deal. Turns out Eduardo Nunez is not the greatest player in baseball history.

Joe Girardi, Cubs manager (2014-2019)

I think ending points are good. They’re natural. With Mo and Andy gone, Jeter on the way out, Jeter winding down, I thought it was the right time to explore another challenge.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

It hurt Joe to leave, I think it really did. But he saw a Cubs franchise trending in the right direction, and the Yankees teetering on the edge. He had an escape valve, so he took it. The Yankees pursued Don Mattingly, but that didn’t work out, so they ended up hiring Brad Ausmus.

Brad Ausmus, Yankees manager (2014)

Hoo, boy, was that a bad decision.

Jack Curry, YES Network insider

The Yankees made some other moves, splurging for Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka, but that wasn’t enough to prevent the train wreck. Jeter was a shell of himself on a farewell tour; Soriano fell into a blackhole; Young retired; and Lee broke down after 81 innings. He never pitched again. In a funny turn of events, though, Sabathia led the Giants to another World Series title.

CC Sabathia, Giants pitcher

Bro, how crazy is this sh*t? I got one ring for each finger!

Cliff Lee, Yankees pitcher

That’s not how I wanted to go out—half a season of sh*tty pitching, then blowing out my elbow. Getting released two years later in the middle of a tear-down rebuild, without ever getting back on the mound? It sucks, man. I wish I could have given them more.

Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager

How can you be upset with Cliff Lee? He came over and won two world championships for us. He was one of the best pitchers on the planet for three years after that. Yeah, we missed the playoffs three years in a row, and things got dicey there for a bit. But we transitioned in 2016, and got right back in the game. Flags fly forever, and Cliff got us those flags.

Hal Steinbrenner, Yankees owner

The New York Yankees franchise is about championships. Without Cliff Lee, we don’t win the 2010 and 2011 World Series, point blank. I will never, ever regret trading Eduardo Nunez for him.