Matthew H. Rusk

The man who’s stockpiled the best pitching rotation in baseball history is brash, cocky and oozing self-confidence. There’s just one more thing we need him to do: Win the damn World Series

Amaro had assembled the smallest possible circle of advisors for pursuing Lee. Gillick, Proefrock and Phillies president David Montgomery. That was it. No one else, not even manager Charlie Manuel, could know what was brewing. Though there was one other person he told. On the last weekend of negotiations, Amaro called Roy Halladay and asked what he thought of the team pursuing Lee, knowing they’d have to give him more money and years than they’d given Halladay.

“Ruben, I just want to win,” the pitcher told Amaro. “I don’t care what you give the guy.”

So much for needing to massage the ego of Halladay, who was merely the National League’s best pitcher last year.

And then, shortly after rejecting the Phillies’ initial offer, Braunecker called Proefrock. Lee was still willing to consider, he said.

This was Amaro’s element.

“Ruben and Scott were sitting there like they were in a NASCAR race,” recalls Gillick. “Just sitting in third place, idling, letting New York and Texas blow their wads and do what they had to do.”

Amaro also knew not to overplay the cunning and intrigue of the deal. “Sometimes GMs think it’s such a poker game that they try too hard to create illusions,” says Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. “With Ruben, he’s not going to play games with you. That’s why people like dealing with him.”

To that end, Amaro had been frank with Lee and his agent from the beginning. He’d told them, “Look, you guys are the ones who are going to have to make this happen. Not me. You guys are the ones who will have to bite the bullet, because we’re probably not going to be able to match the money or contract years of the other guys.”

At one point, he told them he wasn’t going to offer more than five years guaranteed. Really, he didn’t want to offer more than three years, a longstanding policy of the Phillies with respect to pitching contracts.

Still, it wasn’t happening. Every time Amaro made an offer, the Lees asked for just a little bit more. The Rangers were offering Lee $138 million for six years. And the Yankees were offering him the choice of either a six-year, $138 million deal or a seven-year, $148 million contract. Amaro simply wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap.

So by the afternoon of December 12th — three weeks after Kristen Lee had pleaded with Amaro not to break her heart again — “The deal was dead,” Amaro says. “We said, ‘That’s it. We’re done. It’s dead. Out. Done.’”

Conceding defeat, Proefrock sent Braunecker a text. “I feel sick about this,” he wrote. Braunecker’s response: “I feel the same way.” It was that response, so emotional, so devoid of cunning and games, that gave Proefrock the feeling that maybe, just maybe, there was still a shred of hope. They would make one last offer: $120 million. Five years.

Later that night, Amaro’s cell phone rang. “Ruben?” Once again, the voice of Braunecker on the other end. “You got Cliff back.”