"Timing is everything," says Lee Stevens, pondering the pivotal moment of his baseball career. On April 1, 1996, he was sitting on his couch in Wichita, Kans., unable to bring himself to watch any Opening Day games on television. Stevens's agent had spent the week trying to find his client a team, but all 28 clubs had rejected him. "I was one day from quitting, one day from finding out what I would do the rest of my life," says Stevens, who had played parts of three seasons with the Angels before spending the 1994 and '95 seasons in Japan.
Then, on April 2, after a conversation with Stevens's agent about another player, Rangers general manager Doug Melvin offered Stevens a minor league contract. (Melvin had seen Stevens hit a ball out of Camden Yards back in '92 and recalled that he'd really "crushed it.") Stevens promptly drove the 2½ hours to Triple A Oklahoma City, where he would go on to win the American Association Most Valuable Player award.
He began the '97 season as the last man on the Texas bench. But injuries to righrfielder Juan Gonzalez, first baseman Will Clark and DH Mickey Tettleton provided Stevens with opportunities to play, and he made the most of them, hitting .300 with 21 home runs and 74 RBIs in 137 games.
This year Stevens, the Rangers' regular DH, is among the top 10 in the American League with seven homers, 21 RBIs and a .636 slugging percentage at week's end. "Every time I walk on the field, I'm playing against a team that said no to me," Stevens says. "That's motivating."
California chose him in the first round of the '86 draft, but there was no place for him in Anaheim until fan favorite Wally Joyner departed as a free agent after the '91 season. Stevens stepped into Joyner's spot at first base but hit just .221 in '92, struggling to make contact with anything except watercoolers between whiffs. "It was Wally's World, and I wasn't ready to handle it," Stevens recalls. "I tried to be Superman and not Lee Stevens. I took every at bat as life and death, and my confidence was shattered."
After the Angels gave up on him, Stevens also couldn't make a place for himself in Montreal or Toronto, and finally fled to Japan. He played for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, where he hit 43 homers and drove in 136 runs in two seasons. But, more important, because the Japanese frowned on outward displays of frustration, he learned to control his temper.
Calmer and more confident than when he left the States, Stevens returned in '96 looking to get back to the big leagues. Yet without all those Rangers injuries the following spring, Stevens might never have gotten a chance to prove himself.
Is Stevens a one-year wonder? Not to worry. His seven homers led the team at week's end and put him fifth in the league in home runs per at bat, erasing his own doubts about repeating his '97 success. "The question crossed my mind, too, for a second," Stevens admits. "Then I said, 'Hell, yeah! I can do it again.' That's the difference between me now and 10 years ago."
Anyone who retrieves a home run hit by a Pirate at Three Rivers Stadium this season can get the ball autographed by the batter. A team employee collects the ball, brings it to the player to sign and mails it back to the fan within 48 hours.
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