This story was written by Will Bunch. These Daily News staff writers contributed to today's Cliff Lee coverage: Jenice Armstrong, Josh Barnett, BeckyBatcha, Chuck Darrow, Molly Eichel, Ellen Gray,Dan Gross, Michael Hinkelman, Barbara Laker,Catherine Lucey, Regina Medina,Queen Muse, Jason Nark,Wendy Ruderman and Valerie Russ.
SOMEWHERE YESTERDAY, the skies were painted a somber shade of deathly December gray, with the wind chill whipping toward zero - while a TV set blared depressing headlines about unending unemployment and foreign wars.
That place was not Philadelphia, not yesterday.
You could call it "Cliffmas" - tens of thousands of Philadelphians already have. But the reality is that the giddiness felt by many local residents over news that pitcher Cliff Lee, the hero of the 2009 pennant drive, is coming back to the Phillies for 2011 was so over-the-top that it left Christmas joy somewhere back in the chimney dust.
Holiday cards remained piled up, unwritten, yesterday while fans instead spent hours uploading and downloading the latest Photoshop masterpieces of Lee and his fellow aces, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels; the only gifts moving off the shelves were "Unbeleevable" T-shirts.
"It was like Christmas morning," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice, who was flying to South Carolina yesterday morning and said the good news was echoing off the normally grim security lines of Philadelphia International Airport. "Even the airport screeners were in a good mood."
Indeed, all of Philadelphia was having a moment yesterday. The word that Lee was coming back to the Phillies - and especially that he would do so for less money and fewer guaranteed years than offered by the once-swaggering, now-jilted New York Yankees - transcended sports.
Lee's return march was a feel-good story for a feel-bad decade (at least so far) and provided the kind of civic self-esteem booster shot that Philadelphians so rarely offer to themselves. Most of the city's elites were eager to weigh in.
"I've had a feeling for a while, and I think he made it evident, that Cliff Lee did not want to leave Philadelphia," said Mayor Nutter, who will be campaigning for a second term while the Phillies campaign for a second championship in four seasons. "I think Cliff Lee has now demonstrated why Philadelphia is such a great place. He turned down more money at some really great teams because he wanted to be in Philadelphia."
Many kept coming back to that - that in saying "yes" to Philadelphia, the mild-mannered Arkansas native was also saying "no" to New York, the 100-miles-away monster metropolis that had its boot on the neck of this city's sagging sense of pride for decades.
"People are tired of the New York Yankees' shtick," said Robert K. Reed, an executive assistant U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia, who was speaking only for himself and not in any official capacity. "To see the Phillies get Lee, and get him for less than what the Yankees offered, it's like, touché. Take that, New York! It's like Lee saying, 'I'd rather be somewhere else than in New York and for less money, because I have a bond with this team and city.' "
Other public officials pointed out the indisputable economic benefits to the baseball fever stirred by Lee's return - not just in a continued record run of sellouts at Citizens Bank Park and the sale of so much Lee merchandise, but also in the free advertising of so many likely Philly appearances on national TV.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz, wearing his official hat and gauging economic impact for the city, said, "I welcome him back for the millions in added concession and ticket revenue he'll help generate during yet another Phillies championship season."
But Butkovitz also put his Phillies fan cap on. "Cliff Lee epitomizes what it is to be a Philadelphian," he said. "He works hard, places a value on loyalty - and puts family and friends ahead of money."
Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., touted "the fact that he and his wife cited living in Philadelphia was worth $50 million over the next five years."
GPTMC is the entity behind the popular "With love" ads and billboards aimed at promoting Philadelphia tourism, and she said a billboard touting Lee will likely go up as soon as one promoting New Year's activities comes down. The location? Interstate 95, the artery that connects Philadelphia and New York.
Of course, success for the Phillies could also mean more city spending in areas like police overtime. "We better hurry up and get our mounted unit in place," said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, "because the Phillies are going to win the World Series the next three or four years."
Younger fans experienced the mass hysteria of the Lee news in the infinite world of cyberspace. "The cool thing about Twitter and Facebook is there's a shared experience," said Spike Eskin, WYSP disc jockey and son of local sports personality Howard Eskin. "Everyone knew at the same time. It felt like everyone was waiting for the exact same thing the exact way, and they all knew at the exact same time."
They certainly did if they were among the 1.5 million, give or take a few, Twitter followers of Roots drummer Questlove, who tweeted: "WHOOOO HOOOOOOOO!!!! CLIFF LEE IS COMING BACK TO THE PHILLIES! (ROY, ROY, COLE AND CLIFF?!?!?!?!?!?!!?!?) #wethebest!"
Other fans created the all-caps effect the old-fashioned way - by yelling. "I needed earplugs in my house this morning," said Risa Vetri Ferman, Montgomery County district attorney. "The screams from my family could be heard in the five-county region when they heard the news."
The large Philadelphia expatriate community celebrated just as hard. Consider actress Kate Flannery, a star of NBC's "The Office." "I was shocked when he left, but I am not shocked that he has come home," Flannery said. "All is right in Philadelphia. I just wish winter would hurry up and go away so we can watch this amazing team!" But just the knowledge that Lee soon will be in Phillies pinstripes was enough to spread the preholiday cheer. Many Philadelphians could focus on little else.
Michael Solomonov, executive chef and co-owner of Zahav restaurant in Society Hill and two other eateries, said that yesterday morning he told his pastry chef Bethan that she had just made the best rugelach he'd ever tasted, and she broke into a broad grin.
Said Solomonov: "So I asked her if she was smiling about my comment and she said, 'No, I'm just really excited that Cliff Lee is coming back to Philly. Isn't it great!' "
Last year Cliff Lee raised money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through the sale of "Unbelievable!" T-shirts at Modell's. Lee's son Jackson, now 9. was diagnosed with the disease as a baby.
To contribute to leukemia research, education and patient services, visit www.lls.org/donate. You can contribute online, or print out the online form and mail your contribution to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Donor Services, P.O. Box 4072, Pittsfield, MA 01202.