Ah the memories that come flooding back at the mention of D-Lee, the appropriate nickname for former Chicago Cubs slugger Derrek Lee.
Standing at 6’5″ tall and listed at 240 pounds, Lee and myself share similar features in terms of stature now that my height is likely capped and my growing up completed. In 2008, however, and even before that year, Lee represented something that I so long dreamed to become, a baseball player and a first baseman at that.
A damn good one for the Cubs from 2004-2009, Lee slashed .304/.384/.539 in six full seasons on the North Side, racking up two Gold Gloves and a Sliver Slugger award from his first base position.
The anchor of the last great Cubs teams before the 2016 title club, Lee will be most remembered for his MVP-caliber 2005 campaign. While he fell short to Albert Pujols that year (Lee actually posted a better OPS and hit five more home runs), he did pace the majors in batting average (.335), slugging percentage (.662) and OPS+ (174) just to name a few categories.
His best full season as a big-leaguer, Lee will likely go down as not much more than a really solid baseball player after not receiving a single vote for the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot in 2017.
Aside from his 34.6 career bWAR, 331 career home runs or durability as a player, Lee will always be bigger than life for a kid that grew up hundreds of miles from Wrigley Field.
As a kid from a small town in North Carolina, the Atlanta Braves reigned supreme as the go-to team for my friends and family. Always into baseball, getting out of school and walking home coincided perfectly with the Cubs 2:20 p.m. eastern start times for home games.
With three hours to kill until my parents got home, Cubs baseball quickly became my outlet to decompress from a hard day at elementary school. An avid youth league baseball player in my own right as a kid, I longed to play first base, a position often reserved for the coaches’ favorite, or at least that’s the way I remember it happening.
Once home, I would project those dreams, as well as the ones that had me playing at Wrigley one day, on Lee, the big, broad-shouldered slugger hitting in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup.
Ten years old in 2008, I must have watched 85-100 games as the Cubs finished 97-64 to capture the National League Central title. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last time that happened until eight years later when they finally ended the longest championship drought in professional sports.
A happy-go-lucky kid at the time, not caught up in off-season moves the Cubs did or didn’t make or their payroll situation, it struck me as the best moment of my life when my parents announced we would be attending a Braves and Cubs game at Turner Field in Atlanta as a delayed 10th birthday present.
While my memory fails me about the specifics of the game, I can recall the Cubs defeating the Braves on that hot afternoon in Georgia and the sheer joy I received in being able to watch my favorite Cub in person.
Traded to those same Braves in August of 2010 for three pitching prospects as part of a sell-off by former general manager Jim Hendry, Lee posted an .849 OPS across 39 games with his new club.
“I had a great time here. I grew as a player, grew as a person, but I didn’t achieve the ultimate goal [of winning the World Series], so that part is disappointing. The rest of my experience was nothing but positive.”Derrek Lee on his time in Chicago, to Bruce Levine of ESPN.com in 2010.
Atlanta eventually lost to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS and Lee spent time with two more teams before hanging up his spikes after the 2011 campaign.
The source of a childhood nickname and even an early email address, Lee lingers on my mind every time I watch what Anthony Rizzo is doing on the North Side.
By the time it’s all said and done, Rizzo has a shot to go down as the best Cubs first baseman in franchise history. Not too far behind him on that list, Lee was my first favorite baseball player and will continue to hold a special place with me for as long as I can grasp those memories.