Derrek lee's first hit as a member of the Florida Marlins seven years ago was a grand slam, the ball ending up in the hands of a fan in the leftfield seats at Pro Player Stadium. When Marlins pitchers in the bullpen near the stands asked for the ball so they could give it to their teammate, the fan agreed to hand it over. All he asked in return was an autographed ball--from Florida slugger Gary Sheffield. "I guess he had no interest in my autograph," Lee says, smiling. "I can understand that. Shef was a star. What was he going to do with a Derrek Lee home run ball?" ¬∂ These days long balls hit by Lee, now with the Chicago Cubs, are much more valued, though he seems intent on flooding the market with them. At week's end the 29-year-old first baseman led the National League in homers with 17 and was swinging the bat as well as or better than anyone else in baseball. He led the majors in batting average (.377), slugging (.693), on-base percentage (.461) and hits (86) and was among the top four in RBIs (53), runs (48), doubles (21) and total bases (158). Talk of Lee becoming the NL's first Triple Crown winner since Joe Medwick in 1937 may be premature, but Lee is one of only four players in the last 38 years to lead his league in batting average, home runs and RBIs two months into a season (chart, page 63).
It has been a power display worthy of former Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in the off-season, and it has kept Chicago within reach of the front-running St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. The second-place Cubs were 6 1/2 games out and also in the thick of the wild-card race despite injuries to shortstop Nomar Garciaparra (torn left groin muscle) and ace righthanders Mark Prior (fractured right elbow) and Kerry Wood (right shoulder strain). Lee, acquired after the 2003 season in a trade with the Marlins for first baseman Hee Seop Choi and a minor leaguer (cost-conscious Florida wanted to rid itself of the arbitration-eligible Lee), hasn't come close to the popularity the charismatic Sosa enjoyed at his peak, but fans have warmed to him quickly. Even in San Diego earlier this month there were enough Cubs backers on hand to start a clearly audible chant of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" whenever Lee came to the plate. (That notion wasn't so premature, considering he went 3 for 3 in the series opener against the NL West--leading Padres after going 5 for 5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers the night before; Chicago won both games.)
The fast start is especially remarkable because Lee usually gets going like a teenager on Saturday morning. Before this season he had hit .233 in April and .231 in May for his eight-year career (chart, below right); in 2005 those numbers were .419 and .313. "I've played with a lot of great players," says Cubs catcher Michael Barrett, who was a teammate of Vladimir Guerrero's in Montreal and Sosa's with the Cubs, "and this is the best streak I've ever seen."
The longer Lee's streak lasts, however, the more likely that it isn't a streak at all but rather the long-awaited breakout year that those who have kept an eye on him have been expecting since he broke into the big leagues with San Diego in 1997. Lee, the 14th pick in the '93 draft, has career highs of 32 homers, 98 RBIs and a .282 batting average, but he's always been a multitalented player seemingly capable of greater production. "He's the total package--power, speed, defensive ability," says San Diego general manager Kevin Towers, who traded Lee to the Marlins in 1997 as part of a deal to acquire righthander Kevin Brown. "We could be looking at one of the game's next superstars."
Tim Flannery, a former Padres infielder and now a broadcaster with the club, managed Lee at Class A Rancho Cucamonga in 1994. "Someday Derrek's going to get hot," Flannery said then, "and he's not going to stop for about 15 years."
Lee's own assessment is in keeping with his personality--mature, humble and moderate: "I think I improve as a hitter every year because I learn a little bit more about the pitchers and what they're trying to do to me. Most guys go through the same process. I don't really think about having a breakout year; I just think about continuing to learn and improve."
In the wake of Sosa's often melodramatic tenure in Chicago, Lee's emergence has given Cubs fans a refreshingly even-keeled, uncomplicated hero. "You just pencil his name in the lineup and don't worry about him," says manager Dusty Baker, who has known Lee since he attended Baker's youth baseball camps in their shared hometown of Sacramento in the late 1980s. "He's the same dude every day, whether he homers three times or strikes out three times."
the 6'5" lee has a prodigious wingspan, which prompted Baker to nickname him Rodan, after the enormous pterodactyl who battled Godzilla in Japanese horror flicks. It was the perfect moniker, not only because of Lee's rangy build but also because he spent part of his childhood in Japan, where his father, Leon, had a 10-year career as a top hitter. (Derrek's uncle Leron also played in the Japanese leagues, after spending eight years in the majors with four teams.) But the nickname hasn't caught on, which is fine with Lee, who prefers the simple D-Lee by which he's known in the Chicago clubhouse. "Even when he was a kid, he was never the flashy type who needed everybody to notice him," says Leon, who served as the Cubs' Pacific Rim scouting coordinator from 1998 through 2002. "He was always happy to blend in and just do his job."
That demeanor was shaped in part by the time Derrek spent abroad, where he soaked up the Japanese players' selflessness and devotion to the game. "My dad started playing over there when I was two, so I spent a lot of summers in Japan," he says. "The last two or three years we lived there year-round. The main thing I noticed was that they respect the game big time. It's almost a sacred thing to them. I never saw them do things like spit on the field. Their practices were serious business. They put in many hours working at the game, and they never put themselves ahead of the team. I was really impressed by that."
Young Derrek also picked up on how his father dealt patiently with fans at the ballpark and away from it. He remembers a family trip to the zoo, where autograph seekers got pen marks all over his father's shirt yet Leon remained unruffled. "He always had this way of being under control," Derrek says. "And he never brought the game home with him, no matter what kind of game he had."
Likewise, Derrek hasn't brought the job home to his wife, Christina, and their two-year-old daughter, Jada. But that's partly because he has had so few bad days this year. In fact, when asked to name the highlight of his season, he has to think for a bit. It isn't his walk-off home run that beat the New York Mets in the 10th inning on May 11, or his back-to-back two-homer games against the Colorado Rockies on May 27 and 28, or the 5-for-5 game against the Dodgers on June 1. It is the three-run, seventh-inning home run that tied the April 27 game against the Cincinnati Reds; teammate Corey Patterson won it with a homer in the ninth.
As Lee's power numbers grow, so does his legend. He's quick to set the record straight on one overblown story--that he turned down a basketball scholarship to North Carolina to sign with the Padres. (The school offered him a baseball scholarship and the chance to walk on the basketball team.) "North Carolina recruited me mainly to play baseball," says Lee, a star swingman at El Camino High School in Sacramento. "I was going to play basketball, too, but Dean Smith told me I was going to have to redshirt as a freshman. So it's not like I was some blue-chip recruit by any means." But it's easy to see why Lee excelled in both sports. Though he has bulked up to 245 pounds, Lee is surprisingly swift (he has stolen as many as 21 bases in a season and is considered the Cubs' best base runner) and graceful (a Gold Glove winner in 2003). "He's the best all-around first baseman in the game," says Baker.
the only aspect of his offensive performance that Lee isn't satisfied with is his ability to explain it. "People ask me what's different, and I've been trying to come up with a good answer for that question," he says. "I didn't change my stance. I'm using the same bat. My workouts in the off-season were the same as always. All I can say is, everything just seems to be in slow motion when I'm at the plate now."
Actually, the righthanded-hitting Lee has made at least one subtle adjustment. Because he liked to unfurl his long arms to crush outside pitches, opposing teams had been successful pitching him inside. This spring Lee worked on drawing his hands in closer to his body to allow himself to get his bat around more quickly when pitchers try to crowd him. "The biggest thing is his ability to handle inside pitches now," says Dodgers righthander Jeff Weaver. "Before, he'd extend his arms and hit everything to right center. Now he's able to handle the inside stuff, so he's more difficult to deal with."
Opposing pitchers may find Lee even more difficult to deal with over the next several weeks: He traditionally has been a far better hitter in June and July than in April and May. If that pattern holds (he hit .435 in his first 11 games this month), Cubs fans won't be the only ones thinking MVP when he comes to the plate, and Triple Crown talk won't be so easily dismissed. "Why put a ceiling on him?" says Baker. "You look at the way he's putting it all together--the talent, the hard work, the mental approach at the plate--and you see that there's no telling what he might be able to do. We just want to go along for the ride." That could be an awfully long ride.
Derrek Lee is one of only four players since 1968--the year after Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox became the last Triple Crown winner--to lead his league in batting average, home runs and RBIs through the end of May. (Top lines are each player's stats through May 31; bottom lines are season-ending stats and league rank.)