Travis Lee, the Diamondbacks' slugging first baseman, was sitting in the dugout at Bank One Ballpark, a.k.a. the BOB, recently, going through the highlights of a season that could end with his being named National League Rookie of the Year. "So far," said Lee, "I can walk the dog, I can hop the fence, I can trapeze, I can rock the baby, rock the baby cha-cha-cha, orbit launch and rocket launch." He took a deep breath. "Plus, I can go around the world about 10 times."
Through Aug. 29, Lee also had 20 homers and 59 RBIs and was perhaps the most popular Phoenix attraction this side of the pool in the BOB. But big numbers and wide popularity bring nothing more than a polite nod and a shrug of Lee's sizable shoulders. To get a rise out of him, start talking yo-yo.
Earlier this season, a little bored from too much free time between games, Lee paid $30 for a Turbo Bumble Bee, a yo-yo he had seen Drew Benes, Arizona righthander Andy Benes's nine-year-old son, playing with in the clubhouse. Within days Lee had purchased his second yoyo, a Fireball. Then he bought another Fireball. Then a classic wooden Duncan. Then a Stinger, which has two real dead scorpions embedded in its clear sides. When the Diamondbacks visited San Francisco in July, he went to Fisherman's Wharf and paid $3 for a yo-yo that lights up. "I was excited," he says. Two weeks later, it broke. "You get what you pay for."
Lee, a quiet sort, refuses to call his sudden yo-yo affinity an addiction. More of a diversion, he says. Of late, that hasn't been such a bad thing. Since returning three weeks ago from a 15-day stint on the disabled list to heal a groin strain, Lee, a 23-year-old from Olympia, Wash., had played more like Travis Tritt than a guy selected No. 2 in the 1996 June draft, batting .177 with one homer through Saturday. "It's one of the most frustrating things I've ever gone through," he said last week. "I'm completely healthy, and I feel like I'm swinging the bat well. But for some reason, I can't hit the ball."
Until recently Lee, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton (.318, 21 homers, 85 RBIs) and Cubs righthander Kerry Wood (12-6, 3.36 ERA, 223 strikeouts) were neck, neck and neck in the rookie of the year race. However, if Lee's average dips much further (in a span of 16 games, it fell from .288 to .265), he could fall behind even Montreal first baseman Brad Fullmer (.286, 40 doubles, 62 RBIs). "You can't perform like I have lately and win many awards," Lee says.
Not true. Lee is a shoo-in for Diamondback with Most Marriage Requests. Fans love him. Women scream his name. Kids-including his teammates'—hound him.
None of the madness would have happened had Lee and his agent, Jeff Moorad, not taken advantage of the system. Two years ago, when he was selected out of San Diego State by the Twins, Lee—along with three other draftees-benefited from an obscure rule that makes first-round picks free agents if they are not tendered contract offers within 15 days of being drafted. After Minnesota failed to meet the deadline, the expansion Diamondbacks, still a year and a half from playing their first game, snared him with a $10 million signing bonus.
With millions in the bank, Lee can afford the good stuff. "There's this one model," he says, drooling just a bit. "It's called the Silver Bullet, and it's about $90. That's a lot of money for a yo-yo, but I think I have to buy it."