AROUND THE TIME the late NFL games were kicking off Sunday, Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock composed an e-mail that he was hoping he wouldn't have to write.

He typed some words about how sorry he was that things hadn't worked out. There was a compliment about the way the relationship had been conducted, an acknowledgment that this is just the way it goes sometimes, a good wish for the future. Then he pushed a button and sent the missive for agent Darek Braunecker into cyberspace.

The Phillies wouldn't be bringing back Cliff Lee after all.

That Lee sat at a podium in a packed basement conference room at Citizens Bank Park yesterday, introduced as the team's latest high-profile acquisition after agreeing to a 5-year contract that guarantees the lefthander $120 million with an option that could push the value to $135 million, made it obvious that successful CPR had been applied to the negotiations.

But it also became clear that what seemed to be such a simple proposition and inevitable bottom line - Lee badly wanted to return to the Phillies, the Phillies badly wanted him back - came perilously close to not happening at all.

Talks were revived late Sunday when Braunecker e-mailed Proefrock, "Is this eating at you as much as it's eating at me?" Some 24 hours later, the final details were hammered out. Manager Charlie Manuel said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. didn't call him with the good news until 11:30 Monday night.

Lee and his wife Kristen flew into Philadelphia Tuesday night, he took and passed a physical yesterday morning and the formal announcement was made yesterday afternoon. It wasn't until then that it became clear how close this megadeal came to not happening at all, which would have forced Lee to choose between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers.

"This deal was dead on three different occasions. And when I say dead, I mean dead," Braunecker said. "Both parties walked away. But neither Scott nor I could sleep with the idea that we were close enough yet not close enough."

Said Amaro: "At some points during the course of that short period we were really kind of into it, we thought the deal was dead. It was really Kristen and Cliff and Darek coming back to us and saying, 'Listen, this is the place we want to be.' "

To get to the finish line, the Phillies had to stretch themselves financially far beyond what they've ever been willing to do for a pitcher before.

It was 1 year ago today that Roy Halladay appeared in the same patch of South Philly real estate after agreeing to waive his no-trade clause with the Toronto Blue Jays to accept a 3-year, $60 million extension. That meant the Phillies were committed to 4 years and Amaro made it clear to the pitcher who would go on to pitch a perfect game in the regular season, a no-hitter in the playoffs and become a unanimous NL Cy Young winner that he couldn't do any better than that.

For Lee, he did.

"We went out of our element a little bit here," Amaro conceded. "This was a special circumstance. When you talk about [baseball], for us it's absolutely the right thing to do. If you're strictly talking business, it may not be. But this is too important to the organization and I think it was too important to the present and future of our franchise not to go forward and do it."

The $24 million average annual value of the contract is the highest in history for a pitcher.

While Lee will make a relatively low $11 million base salary this season, Amaro made it clear that there will be no other significant additions. And this could handcuff him if there are needs to be addressed before the trading deadline next July.

"We're no longer flexible. We've reached our flex point," he said.

(Amaro also made a point of calling Halladay to make certain that he wouldn't be upset by the prospect that Lee has a longer, more lucrative deal. Halladay gave the deal a big thumbs up, the general manager said.)

Lee was deeply unhappy when the Phillies traded him to the Seattle Mariners the day they acquired Halladay, but never held that against the team.

"You can't hold a grudge," he said. "I just think they made that move to try to improve the team. It's nothing personal. I do understand it's a business. That's a part of it. You're not always going to like the decisions they make. We're players. We play the game. They make moves. That's their job. You can't get mad at them for doing it. Yeah, you can be happy or excited or disappointed. You're going to feel emotions when things like that happen. There's no way to avoid that. But it's nothing personal. It's the nature of the business. It is what it is.

"You've got pride as an athlete. Especially at this level. You'd like to think the they-can't-do-it-without-you type stuff. When things like that happen, you hope you'll be missed. You hope if they lose they sit there and say, 'If we had Cliff to do this, we would have won.' That's the competitive side of you. It's not like you want to jab at them or kick them while they're down. You want to feel wanted. When a team moves you, you want them to look at it later and think they made a mistake."

The Phillies have stopped short of admitting they made a mistake by trading Lee for three minor leaguers. And it's impossible to argue that they would have won the World Series had he stayed.

Still, neither side ever ruled out a reunion. Lee yesterday listed his preference for playing in the National League, the addictive buzz of the sellout crowds at The Bank and the comfort level he achieved in the clubhouse and the city his first time through among his reasons for wanting to come back.

"The first day when this process started, Cliff sat in my office and I told him to give me the top five clubs, in order, of where you'd prefer to play. The top three clubs were the clubs we had in the mix and Philadelphia was first. I always kept that in mind as the process moved forward," Braunecker said.

"It was important that I kept that [Phillies] card in play just strictly to provide the option of truly pursuing their dream of coming back here."

It wasn't preordained. It wasn't easy. In the end, though, both sides got what they wanted.