Well, this just doesn't happen. Highly coveted free-agent athletes take their talents to South Beach, or sign bank-busting contracts with the Washington Nationals. That's just how it is.

And then along comes Cliff Lee.

By most reasonable estimates, Lee decided to pay somewhere between $30 million and $40 million for the privilege of returning to pitch for the Phillies. That is real, actual money - the difference between a five-year contract here and the reported seven-year, $160 million contract Lee was offered by the Yankees.

Lee doesn't just want to win. He went to the World Series this year with the Texas Rangers, one of the teams he turned down to sign here. And the Yankees, with CC Sabathia and that lineup and Mariano Rivera, certainly offered a good chance to win as well as the biggest payday.

Cliff Lee wants to win and, brace yourselves for this, he wants to win here. In Philadelphia. He wants to do it here so much that he took less money and agreed to return to the team that traded him away a year ago.

Thinking back, it's hard to say which move was more shocking: the deal that sent Lee to Seattle last December, just two months after his brilliant postseason performance, or the deal that brought him back in the middle of the night.

The mind reels.

OK, a quick reality check. This isn't meant to be a buzz-kill, but we are talking about Ruben Amaro Jr., the engineer of that regrettable trade. Remember how that went down. One minute, you heard the Phillies had landed Roy Halladay in a deal with Toronto. Before you could finish high-fiving the nearest Phillies fan, you heard the other part. Amaro had flipped Lee to Seattle for three prospects.

So there has to be some chance that Amaro is planning to use one of his other aces - someone not named Joe Blanton - to acquire a righthanded bat or bullpen help or whatever. A chance.

But if not, this is almost ridiculous. The 2011 Phillies would begin the season with what might be the greatest starting rotation in the long history of major-league baseball. Whenever you use a word like "greatest," you run the risk of hyperbole. But not this time.

Cliff Lee, Cy Young winner.

Roy Halladay, two-time Cy Young winner.

Roy Oswalt, MVP of the 2005 National League Championship Series.

Cole Hamels, MVP of the 2008 NLCS and World Series.

They have 13 All-Star Game appearances among them. Two lefties and two righties. Balance, power, finesse, guts. Proven postseason excellence. That is a remarkable combination.

It all happened so suddenly, at least from outside appearances. The Yankees made Lee their primary off-season priority. The Rangers, who acquired him for this year's stretch drive the way the Phillies did a year before, were in it, too. It looked like Lee would have his choice: Join the Yankees and take on New York City, or stay in Texas.

And then the Phillies got into it. Amaro, who has now acquired Lee (twice), Halladay and Oswalt, somehow overcame all the history and convinced Lee to take the lesser (but yes, still generous) contract. Amaro did not adhere to the team's philosophical opposition to signing pitchers for longer than three or four years, but he did not match the Yankees' seven-year offer, either.

It all came together Monday night. Lee reportedly informed the Rangers himself while his agent called the Yankees.

Lee chose the Phillies. He chose Philadelphia. His experience here in 2009, when he slipped right into the ultra-professional clubhouse atmosphere and the hearts of the fans, outweighed the sting of being traded and all those extra dollars.

There was a time when it seemed like everyone eventually signed with the Yankees or the Red Sox, the teams with the biggest payrolls. Those days are officially over.

And the Phillies are unofficially the team to beat in 2011.

Remember Spahn and Sain and pray for rain? How about Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels and pray for the opponents?