Cliff Feeling the brother-Lee love

The top sports hero in Philadelphia has played here only a few months and failed in his one bid for a championship with the Phillies. The only thing Cliff Lee has won so far is fans. Millions of them.

Iwas sitting in Section 111 last Saturday night for his much-awaited return after a year in exile, and it was an event as revealing as it was exhilarating. Roy Halladay is the best pitcher on this historic starting staff and Cole Hamels is a World Series MVP, but Lee is leading the Phils in affection.

For the past 22 years, I have been talking on WIP Radio to the fans, and we agree on one thing. Winning is everything. That’s why members of the Flyers’ champions of the 1970s are still treated like royalty. Lee was brilliant in his previous tour of duty here, but the hated Yankees won.

Technically, he is not a winner yet.

So how did Lee catapult in popularity beyond Hamels and Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge and even Chase Utley? Two things happened that no one could have predicted. First, the Phillies traded Lee. And second, he took less money than he was offered to come back. Those two events rank among the biggest off-the-field Phillies stories of the past decade.

When GM Ruben Amaro Jr. traded Lee on the same day he acquired Halladay in the winter of 2009, he assumed there would be only joy. Amaro thought he had upgraded his ace. What he didn’t count on was the love Philadelphia had already developed for the Arkansas pitcher who had made a connection with the fans merely by appreciating them.

Last month, I was sitting with Lee in the press box in Clearwater, and he was reflecting on the fall of 2009, when this love affair began. In his typical understated way, he said he had never experienced the “electricity” in a ballpark that he felt at Citizens Bank Park.

How much was that electricity worth? Well, the best estimate is that Lee walked away from $40 million to be here. And that’s why he got a standing ovation when he walked in from the bullpen Saturday, why he got another one when he laid down a sac bunt and why he got one more when he walked off the mound after seven innings and 11 strikeouts.

Cliff Lee is providing a fascinating lesson about our sports city. Yes, we love winning. We will always love winning. But we also love that someone has finally recognized us for what we are: the best fans in America.

Doug E. Fresh vs. Weezy

If there was still any doubt about Doug Collins’ worthiness as the NBA’s coach of the year, it was dispelled with the help of Lil Wayne.

That’s right. In the end, it was the foul-mouthed rapper who provided the last big test of an amazing regular season for the reborn Sixers coach. By all accounts, the Sixers sleepwalked through an embarrassing loss to the Kings, a blow made worse when news filtered out that many of the Philly players had sacrificed a good night’s sleep in favor of a concert by Lil Wayne — and, no doubt, an after-party well into the wee hours.

Collins was so upset after the Kings won in OT, he hid in his office for half an hour while Lou Williams was divulging the bad decision he and his teammates had made. What Collins said after that debacle must have been more powerful than Lil Wayne’s best lyrics, because the Sixers clinched a playoff berth with successive wins over the Bulls, Rockets and Nets.

During a recent interview, I asked Collins what was different about this tour of duty. He said he promised before he came out of retirement that he would enjoy coaching and savor every day.

So far, nothing has stopped him in that quest. Not even Lil Wayne.

Calling all captains

Mike Richards may be the worst captain in Flyers history. In fact, he is not really the captain. The real leader is Chris Pronger.

In many ways, Richards is the Chase Utley of the Flyers, a popular player who has never reached his full potential and no longer deserves his superstar status. On the ice, he defers to Pronger. Off the ice, he lets his teammates do the talking. The next insightful observation he offers this season will be his first.

Richards is in the fourth year of his historic 12-year, $70-million contract that seemed excessive at the time and looks downright ridiculous now. He currently ranks 31st in scoring. Lately, during a frustrating swoon by his team, he has been mistake-prone, erratic, petulant and caustic.

Far worse is his ineptitude as captain. Compared to Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Rick Tocchet, Keith Primeau and yes, even Eric Lindros, where does he rank? Would any of those leaders have allowed this slump to deepen without a word — public or otherwise — to counteract it?

The worst thing that happened last week was not the losses to Atlanta, New Jersey or the Rangers; it was the physical setback suffered by Pronger, who is trying to come back from a broken hand.

Without Pronger, the Flyers are dead. Because without Pronger, they have no captain.

–Angelo Cataldi is host of 610 WIP’s Morning Show, which airs weekdays 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

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