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.)
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