Hard work, athleticism have turned Lee into Gold Glover
Coming out of a Sacramento area high school in 1993 at 6-foot-5, Derrek Lee seemed well-suited for playing defense. At least, Dean Smith must have thought so. The North Carolina basketball coach had offered Lee a scholarship to play for his Tar Heels, who had just won Smith's second national championship.
Here 15 years later, Lee is wearing a different shade of blue and is seeking a second championship of his own, one for the Cubs to go with the World Series championship he won with the Marlins in 2003. And while he's not playing Smith's trademark run-and-jump defense, Lee's ability to run, jump and bring a small forward's athleticism to first base has made him one of the game's top defenders.
A two-time all-star with 255 career home runs, Lee is almost as well-known for winning three Gold Gloves.
"As far as throwing to a target, I don't see anybody better," said Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot, one of the beneficiaries of Lee's ability. "You look up an down and see who's over there, I think (Lance) Berkman plays a good first base. And Albert (Pujols) moves around good over there. He's always heads up in the game.
"But I can't see anybody being better than D-Lee over there. He's so athletic and so big. That combination causes him to be a good defender. Very good."
Good enough for Lee to earn his fifth consecutive first-place finish as the National League's Best Defensive First Baseman. Lee's advantage over peers such as Pujols, who won the 2006 Gold Glove, comes from his athletic ability in such a large frame. But it's not just natural ability. Lee has worked at it, making defense an emphasis since shifting over from third base early in his minor league career.
"He gets to a lot of balls others don't, plus he's got good hands," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "He's not just a guy who is big and tall. He's quick, so he gets to a lot of balls, saves a lot of doubles down the line.
"He also makes a lot of great picks on throws from the left side of the infield, saving those guys errors. He's the best I've ever seen.''
Hendry credited Lee with giving his fellow corner infielder Aramis Ramirez the confidence needed to become a better defender since coming to Chicago. "He's become an outstanding defender. He's gotten a lot better since he got here," Hendry said. "I think, especially early on, Derrek saved him a lot of errors Now he's very solid."
At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Lee is 40 pounds heavier than when he signed as the Padres' first-round pick (14th overall) in 1993. As he's matured, Lee has retained much of his athleticism, while adding significant skill and of course game experience.
"I just worked at it," Lee says. "I had good coaches in the minor leagues. I always took pride in it. It was a matter of repetition and putting in the time. I started out in the minor leagues as a third baseman, and I think that probably helped a little bit. Just over time, you develop the skills.
"From my first year in the minor leagues until now, it's night and day, the progression."
For some first basemen, their best position really is the batter's box. Lee measures up there, but measures up more with other infielders defensively with his ability to turn batted balls into outs.
"He's got the ability and talent," Cubs bench coach Alan Trammell said. "But he's a worker, and he's very observant. Looking back to him, going back to his youth and having a scholarship to play basketball at North Carolina, he's just a darn good athlete.
"But he's attentive. He works hard, and he's got good feet. To me, good feet go hand in hand with reading the hops and things like that. He's just a professional.
"If you throw it over Derrek's head, you've earned an error."
With reporting by Phil Rogers and Bruce Miles, Daily Herald (Schaumburg, Ill.)