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All true. Except... .
HERE IS THE OWNER'S SUITE. Indoor and outdoor seating overlooking home plate, tasteful wallpaper and wood molding and a buffet bar with three brick warmers to keep the pork chops and pasta almost as hot as John Middleton's blood. Most of the energy circulating through a ballpark you can see or hear, but there's some—like that in this box—that none of the 44,000 ever notice, currents that lift and carry and reshape. Middleton was the son of one of the Five Phantoms—the local nickname for the Phillies' five invisible owners as the franchise regressed into a small-market operation in the 1990s. He attained Phantomhood when his father died in '98, then sold the family cigar business in 2007 for a smokin' $2.9 billion, making him one of America's wealthiest men. Giving John, who'd been a hold-nothing-back wrestler at Amherst in the '70s, more time to sink his heart and soul into the Phillies, to climb aboard the team bus on road trips, to shake and spray the bubbly with the boys ... to be what the other Phantoms never seemed to be: a hot-damn, win-now Phan!
He fell hard for Loose Laser during that three-month cameo in 2009. The connection became even more personal in the aftermath of the Game 6 loss to the Yanks when John's elderly mother, Frances, got turned around in the team's Manhattan hotel, and Cliff's wife, Kristen, helped her find her way, not realizing until later who she was. The Lees ended up in the hotel bar with the grateful part-owner and his wife, commiserating over the lost Series and hearing Middleton profess his fervent wish that they remain in Philly.
Kristen had loved their three months there. It was the first time that the Lees—who'd known each other since junior high in Benton—had lived downtown in a big city, and they'd discovered the joy of tumbling out of their apartment into four-star Italian restaurants, of catching an eight-minute cab ride to a ballpark that throbbed every night, of Kristen walking down the street to the train station and hopping a one-hour Metroliner to New York City to watch her man rub out the Mets, and becoming so familiar in the toy shop around the corner that their son, Jaxon, now nine—who'd nearly died of leukemia as an infant—always ended up playing ball with the clerk. It felt like a vacation from life, and they were stunned when Amaro called six weeks after the season and said ... goodbye?
No, this couldn't be happening, they'd sign a contract, do whatever it took, Kristen cried to her husband's agent, Darek Braunecker—but it was done, Cliff was a Mariner. Seven months later, when the Lees bumped into Phillies personnel at the All-Star Game in Anaheim, they were still asking, Why'd you trade us? Kristen teared up when she saw the Middletons, who consoled her and reiterated their longing for Laser.
But ... how could it happen? Stealth was the only chance the Phils had once Lee became a free agent last fall, an ambush that would keep the Yankees and the Rangers from discovering that a third suitor was involved and jacking up the bidding war to impossible dollars. Amaro cut the motors, ran up the sails and set off in darkness. Dave Montgomery, the affable team president, was the decision-maker on team finances, and Middleton's bulging treasure chest wasn't his to skim. But feeling the hunger of the billionaire Phantom, how could Monty and Ruben not keep creeping further beyond their budget, into deeper waters?
Humming with nerves and adrenaline the first two weeks of December, Amaro popped Ambien just to steal two or three hours' sleep. "You broke my heart once, Ruben!" he heard Kristen say over a speakerphone from Braunecker's agency as negotiations neared climax. "Don't break it again!"
But he had to, it seemed, as Braunecker shot down the Phils' last offer on Dec. 12 (five years, a little more than $100 million), and Amaro winced and gave up, wishing the Lees the best. A few hours later Braunecker was back on the phone with the assistant G.M., Scott Proefrock, whom he'd known for years, saying he felt sick about it. The Phils dug a little deeper the next day—five years and $120 million—and held their breath. That evening, Amaro, seated in a restaurant across from Phillies outfielder Ben Francisco and Gillick, now the team's special adviser, looked at his ringing cellphone and beelined to the door for privacy. "You got your lefthander back!" he heard Braunecker sing out.
"You've got to be kidding me!" Ruben yelped.
MLB.com busted the report at 10:50 p.m. Middleton zinged a text to Amaro: If the rumor is true, congratulations! Amaro called Charlie Manuel and asked his manager if he was sitting down. The 67-year-old, like a little boy, had to write The Legion of Arms' names on a piece of paper and stare at them, too excited to doze off till 2 a.m.