Cliff Lee donned the Seattle Mariners hat and slipped on the No. 36 white Mariners home jersey over his dark blue button-up shirt. With each arm through the sleeves, he buttoned a few buttons and looked out at the assembled media and Mariners front office employees on-hand at Safeco Field.
“It’s a nice fit,” he said.
Not missing a beat, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik replied, “That’s what we hope.”
After being acquired in a trade for three minor league prospects from the Philadelphia Phillies on Dec. 16, 2009, Lee was officially introduced to the local media on Friday afternoon, a day after his soon-to-be teammate Felix Hernandez was in Seattle to sign his 5-year, $78 million extension.
The two would-be aces never crossed paths in the 48-hour span, but Mariners fans will soon get to see them pitch on back-to-back days, forming perhaps the best 1-2 combination in all of major league baseball.
“Any time you are building a competitive team and you want to take the next step, to acquire some of this magnitude and match him up with someone like Felix Hernandez, as well the rest of our rotation, it’s very special,” Zduriencik said.
Having the better part of a month to allow the idea of being traded to sink in and also to do a little checking into his new team, Lee seemed at ease and optimistic about the prospect of playing for the Mariners and in Safeco Field.
“I’m excited to be here,” he said. “I’m back in the American League with one of the best defenses in the game. It’s going to be fun watching Ichiro and (Franklin) Gutierrez and Ichiro run around the outfield. (Chone) Figgins, Jack Wilson, (Casey) Kotchman, those guys are defensive-oriented players, to be a starting pitcher you have to like that. I like that a lot.”
Lee didn’t sound quite that upbeat on a conference call the day after the trade was made. At that point, he was still reeling from the punched-in-the-gut feeling of being traded by a team he planned on signing an extension with.
"It definitely caught me off guard,” he said. “Through the media it may have looked like I didn’t want to be traded to the Mariners. That wasn’t the case at all. It was just shock. It caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Lee wasn’t apologetic for that tone. He was just being honest.
“People are going to perceive things how they want,” he said. “The stuff I said was real. I could have stood up there and made up something to sound good for whoever, but instead I said exactly what I felt. It’s not Seattle. I could have been traded to any other team. I would have said the same thing.”
But on Friday, Lee was smiling and cordial and even playful.
Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding Lee besides the transition to Seattle is his pending free agency at the end of season. He was asked how he would approach that situation, and what he wants.
“I want a 10-year deal for about 200 billion dollars,” he said, breaking up the room in laughter, including Zduriencik, who may have laughed the hardest after the initial shock.
Later Zduriencik took a serious tone when it came to the talks of signing Lee to an extension.
“I told him upstairs, it would have not been in our best interest or his best interest to move forward right after he was acquired to do anything with a contract extension,” Zduriencik said. “He was in little bit of shock. He was just traded from team that had played in the World Series. This is his third club in about six months.”
Zduriencik reminded those in attendance that Lee has yet to throw a pitch for the Mariners, let alone meet manager Don Wakamatsu or most of his teammates.
“The best thing would be to have open arms and let this guy experience what it is like here,” Zduriencik said.
Lee admitted has no idea what to expect. He’s going to spring training with a new team for the first time since 2002.
But he has an idea of what he hopes to find – something similar to the Phillies. After all, it took just a half season with Philadelphia to change his baseball and career plans and expectations.
“My mindset going into last year was to play out my contract and go to free agency, but that changed when I went to Phildelphia,” he said. “I got there and I liked how things worked there.”
What Lee really liked was his teammates. Not only did he find talented players like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, he found that those same players along with the likes of Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino were single-minded in their approach and work ethic.
“I was only there a couple months, but in the short time I was there, it was obvious they were doing a lot of things right,” he said. “Yeah, they had a lot of really good players there, but it didn’t come easy for them, they worked.”
It was eye-opening to Lee.
“It was a different environment than what I was used to in Cleveland,” Lee said. “I thought it was a good environment in Cleveland, but I got to Philadelphia and there was just something different there. I’m hoping to find a similar-type feel here in Seattle.”
Zduriencik believes he will.
“If you have been around Chone Figgins, if you have been around Franklin Gutierrez and Felix and Kenny (Ken Griffey Jr.), there are a lot of quality people on this club, and he doesn’t know them at all,” Zduriencik said. “We have great people. I think there are a lot of positives to a lot of this.”
And Lee is looking for positives, on the field and off it. He knows the team defense and Safeco Field are just a start.
“I’m hoping I love it,” he said. “I’m hoping I get to spring training and I mesh well with the team, and I get to know all the guys and things click, and we start winning, make the playoffs and win the World Series. That’s what I’m hoping. That’s my plan.”