St. Travis at the Bat
Saint Travis, hear our prayer. Patron of all-American boys, role models and virginal heartthrobs, protector of sweet-swinging lefty hitters, first baggers, ambidextrous athletes, lead us in the basepaths of righteousness in His game's sake. Step to the plate and knock one into the cheap seats. Deliver us from the ignominies of last place. Fill our seasons not with travesties but with Travis tee shirts. Influence our sons and marry our daughters. We ask in your name. Amen.
"No, honestly, he's really like that," says Joe Garagiola Jr., general manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who is almost tired of having to apologize for the team's too-good-to-be-true star first baseman, Travis Lee.
He's as innocent as a saint. He is devoutly religious. He doesn't smoke or drink. He rides his bike to the field and lets his high school buddies crash at his apartment. He bakes chocolate chip cookies for his family. He chews Dubble Bubble gum, which he frugally buys by the case at Costco. Although he's a multimillionaire, he calls home only on Fridays when the rates are lower. He'd like to meet a nice girl and settle down and buy a house with a couple of golden retrievers in the yard. He volunteers to work with children at middle schools--though he calls it "hanging out" and not "work."
"If people want to think of me as a role model, then they can think it," he says almost defensively. And he does nothing deliberately to further the image.
There are more outgoing and personable guys on the team, Andy Fox, for example, the ubiquitous infielder who literally has all the bases covered and the outfield as well.
Lee, on the other hand, can be guarded, almost brooding, but he sends out an unspoken vibe to fans. When Lee comes to bat, and only when Lee comes to bat, a murmur goes through the stadium.
He's six feet three inches tall and weighs 215 pounds, but looks bigger, as handsome as a Saturday-morning cartoon superhero--Captain Baseball, whose heart is as true as his throwing arm.
In his hometown of Olympia, Washington, Lee would visit with a seriously disabled youngster at school, playing with him, helping him take his medications, "making" him eat his lunch, showing the other children not to be afraid. In late June, the Make-A-Wish Foundation awarded the child a trip to Phoenix and a ballgame to see his friend Travis. Like a latter-day Babe Ruth, Lee whacked a pair of homers for his little pal, and then went aw-shucks for sportswriters and probably meant it. He keeps a photo of himself and the little boy in his locker, the two of them holding hands while standing on the third-base line.
Teammates and players on other teams stand in awe of him.
"You see how veteran guys react to him," says Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter. "They love the demeanor, the work and the respect."
"I just really get a kick out of his laid-back approach," says teammate Andy Fox, "but at the same time the intensity he has. For being as young as he is"--Lee is 23--"he's very mature in the way he deals with things. He doesn't let things get to him. He's confident in himself but not cocky. He knows exactly who he is on the field and off. Whether he goes 0 for 5 or 5 for 5, he's the same guy every day."
Sportswriters all over the country are touting him as the Diamondbacks' "future franchise."
Those same reporters predicted gloom and doom when he received a then-unprecedented signing bonus of $10 million to play in Phoenix. It would take a working stiff with an annual salary of $50,000 200 years to earn as much. Lee still hasn't come to grips with the money. He lives in a run-of-the-mill apartment downtown.
His youthful naivete is legendary.
"Aw. I'm 23 years old," he says. "This is a whole new experience for me. Every day I show up and something new is going to happen."
Scott Brubaker, who handles marketing for the team, recalls Lee meeting a marketing rep for Pepsi on a flight back from a game.
"He said, 'Mountain Dew is, like, my favorite drink, and I've always wanted a Mountain Dew hat,'" Brubaker says.
Brubaker called the rep.
"So they sent two dozen of them and put them in his locker, and he thought he'd hit the bank. That's how simple this kid is."
Lee's playing style is just as simple and straightforward.
On the field, Lee is more of a presence than a showman. He towers over first base, but he moves with an economy of motion. He makes every play look so effortless that he won't turn up in the game highlights on the 10 o'clock news. He makes few spectacular diving catches, because he instinctively knows where to be.
Both Buck Showalter and Joe Garagiola Jr. talk of his innate ability to be where the play is.
Garagiola recalls a play Lee made in Wrigley Field, where he had to find the ball in the lights, run toward the wall, which fans were hanging over, and make the over-the-shoulder catch.
Perhaps because he is ambidextrous he has a heightened sense of where he is. On the diamond, he throws left and bats left. He writes with his right hand, played quarterback on the football team right-handed, does everything right-handed--except play baseball.
"Travis will just eat up the ball at first base," Garagiola says. "The in-between hop, the ball that stays down; for a lot of first basemen, it's off the glove, it hops over their shoulder, it's down in the corner rolling around.
"The little things he knows to do at his age," Garagiola continues. "On the throw, when he sees it's going to pull him off the bag, he immediately steps off the bag to catch the ball. So many guys will try to keep that foot on the bag, straining, straining, and now the ball has passed them and the runner's on second."
Showalter marvels at his range in catching the ball in the air, on his throwing ability, on his composure at the plate.
"He has a clock. He can speed the game up or he can slow the game down," Showalter says. "He's selective at the plate, and the passion of the moment doesn't affect his ability to perform."
A seasoned pitcher will use the anxiety factor against a rookie--the screaming fans, the tensions--and force him to strike out. Travis don't play that.
Until he pulled a groin muscle and landed on the 15-day disabled list, he led National League rookies in home runs and runs batted in. He was running neck-and-neck with Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood for Rookie of the Year in the minds of many sportswriters. Recently, Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies has zoomed ahead in nearly all statistical categories. Until last weekend, Lee led his own team in home runs with 20; Devon White has 21, and only White leads Lee in hits and RBIs.
Since he came off the disabled list in mid-August, he has been inconsistent at the plate.
He watches films of his swing, trying to figure out what's wrong.
"Everything looks exactly the same," he says, "the hands, the feet. It's frustrating. It's mind-boggling."
He still smiles when he says it.
Between 3:15 and 4:30 on game days, players and reporters shuffle through the clubhouse beneath Bank One Ballpark and through the Diamondbacks dugout on their way to the field, the players headed for batting practice, the reporters hoping to snag a player on the fly.
On a recent afternoon, a photographer from Associated Press tries to make the most of his allotted 10-minute photo shoot, which is about all Travis Lee will stand still for. The energy he gives off is like that of a half-tamed stallion, vibrant and strong, but easy to spook and quick to bolt. In fact, the media guys for the Diamondbacks recommend that sportswriters hang around the clubhouse a few days to let the players get used to seeing them before overwhelming them with interview requests.
The angle of the AP shoot is to photograph Lee with his yo-yo, which, despite his older sister's kidding, Lee has taken up to pass the long hours between games. Sometimes when he shakes hands, the yo-yo is still in his palm.
"Can you do that thing with two yo-yos?" the photographer asks, pumping his hands outward in pantomime.
"Not with one yo-yo," Lee quips, punctuating the response with a gum snap.
He turns to a reporter and asks, "What's the name of that building in France?"
"The Eiffel Tower?"
Lee cracks a half smile and turns around to show the dangling yo-yo, its string draped over his finger and drawn loosely around itself in a definitely Eiffel-like shape.
He suffers through a few clicks of the shutter, then, relieved, wanders over to the batting cage to take some swings.
As the sportswriters watch the hypnotic rhythms of batting practice--BP, as they call it--and the other players wait their turns and chat, Lee instead plays with their kids.
Buck Showalter allows the players' sons to have the run of the clubhouse, the dugout, and the warning track during batting practice. (When the daughters are allowed, the players are warned to keep their pants on.) They suit up in little uniforms, bring their mitts, and throw the ball around. And they follow Travis Lee.
"When the kids come in and go nuts, I love it," Lee says. "I think it's great. They were running around BP, but Buck shut it down because he didn't want to see some little kid get smoked in the head."
He plays catch with them, throws the ball for them to hit, scuffs grounders to them, and when he runs through the dugout with them, the look in his eyes resembles that of another 12-year-old on his way outside to catch bugs.
Showalter recalls one evening after a game when Lee "had a bad night. He made a rare error and had an 0-fer [a hitless game]. And I remember walking out and there are four or five kids coming over to his locker."
Lee was being iced down in the training room.
"The next thing you know," Showalter continues, "Travis hops up off the training table and there they go, off to the weight room to play kickball."
Lee's locker in the clubhouse looks like a teenager's bedroom: pants and hats, shoes and belts spread five feet out onto the locker-room floor.
Late after a game, Showalter found his 6-year-old son Nathan going through the disarray looking for the matchbox trucks Lee keeps there for the youngsters to play with.
"He wasn't sure if sometimes late at night Travis doesn't play with them himself," Showalter deadpans.
With adults, however, Lee can be aloof, almost standoffish, but not the least bit insecure. He knows and likes who he is. His world revolves around his family and a few close friends.
One of those childhood friends, Ranjy Thomas, describes Lee as having "a gift of not needing to please other people to achieve his own self-worth."
"There's a subtle confidence that's in Travis, a lack of compromise," Thomas continues. "If he decides that you're about something that he's not about, he'll never be rude, he'll never be mean, he'll never stop you. He'll just never be a part of it."
He decides who and what is important and filters everything else out. He is not inarticulate: He speaks well, but often chooses not to.
Lee is made up of paradoxes: His teammates will describe him using the words "maturity" and "kid" in the same paragraph, maturity in the sense that he unflinchingly handles everything thrown at him onfield and off, a kid in that he seems most comfortable with children, in the occasional letting down of his guard. He calls himself "laid back," and yet his face burns with a stony seriousness. When he smiles, the room heats up.
His father, Gary Lee, a family counselor in Olympia, Washington, says, "He has an intensity about sports and about life. He's very focused. But he's laid-back in the sense that things don't seem to bother him. Things roll off his back. He's able to put them in perspective."
Some writers have mistaken that trait as Lee's being even-tempered. It's really self-control.
"I go 0 for 4, I'll be bitter and mad. It'll be tearing me up, but I'm not going to sit there and start swearing and throwing my helmet all over the place," Lee says. "People think that's intensity if you get all fired up and throw your helmet."
In fact, he does get mad, but only his family and friends will see it.
His sister Kyndle recalls races home from school on bikes when they were little, then races home in cars as they got older. Lee so wants to win, she claims, that he'll cheat at the board games the family plays over the Christmas holidays. Ranjy Thomas says that the best way to get him mad is to take him on the golf course. His father describes a recent drubbing he administered to the son on a glass-walled racquetball court.
"He does not like to lose at anything," Gary Lee says. "In any game, like Sorry or Spoons or any board game, Travis does not like to lose. He can't stand it. And so I was just beating him in front of all these people--15-zip, 15-1--and he was just whining."
But you will never see that side of him, and that controlled passion accounts for much of his success on the field.
Lee points out that he has never been much of a sports fan, but he always wanted to play. As a child in California and Washington, he played baseball and soccer and football, like any other American kid. The only difference was that he wouldn't commit to being right-handed or left-handed, so his father had to buy him two baseball mitts.
"Travis said at a very early age that he wanted to be a ballplayer," says his father. "Like when he was 4 or 5 years old, that's what he wanted to do. You never want to dash their dreams, so you encourage them--but you don't know the process of how to get there."
Many little kids have the same fantasies about being pro ballplayers--they just get brought up short by reality somewhere along the way and move on to more realistic goals. Lee didn't have to.
"I just kept playing," he says. "Every level I played at, I had success, so I never really thought about it. I'd go out and play, then go to the next level and play there."
When Lee was 7, his father coached his Little League team. Lee was too sick to play for one game, and so his father tucked him into bed, kissed him goodbye and left for the game alone.
"Just before game time," Gary Lee recalls, "I saw this little boy walking over. It was Travis. He had his bat over his shoulder, his mitt. He had climbed through a hole in the gate.
"I met him and said, 'Sweetheart, what are you doing?' And he looked up at me and pounded his mitt a couple of times, and he said, 'Dad, I'm a baseball player. Baseball players have got to play baseball.'"
The father let him play. He went 4 for 4, then went home and crashed with a 102-degree fever.
When Lee was 11, his family moved to Washington state. His parents are devout Christians, and young Travis got involved in Young Life, a Christian outreach Bible study group. Ranjy Thomas says that the Lee house was often referred to as "The Young Life" home, because for years kids would meet there once a week for fellowship. Lee's closest friends come from that group, particularly a group of seven fellows who keep in touch.
"We've kept together from sixth grade all the way through our senior year in high school," Lee says. "Once a week we sat down, every Wednesday night or every Sunday night. They're like my brothers now."
Lee has mentioned that it was significant to him in his decision to play for the Diamondbacks that Jerry Colangelo is also a devout Christian. As with many teams, the Diamondbacks offer Baseball Chapel, a Bible study for the players before Sunday games, which Lee attends with fellow infielders Jay Bell and Andy Stankiewicz.
In this new fundamentalist era, even high school football players showily touch a knee to the ground in prayer after scoring a touchdown. Pro athletes explain to reporters that their recent shoulder injury was part of God's plan. But that isn't Lee's brand of religion.
"You're not supposed to go out and preach," Lee says. "You lead by example. I'm a quiet believer. I read my Bible every night. I pray every night."
Unlike most pro athletes, baseball players often get drafted right out of high school. But Travis Lee was a sleeper. Even though he excelled on the diamond, he was passed over.
It had not occurred to him that he could play pro ball until his teammate Jed Hanson was drafted by the Cleveland Indians as a senior. Hanson chose to go to Stanford instead and was drafted again later by the Kansas City Royals; he now plays for their Omaha Triple A team. Travis Lee would have seemed to be on the same fast track.
"He batted over .600 and was hitting the snot out of the ball," says Dennis Gray, Lee's coach at Capital High School, who still marvels that the big league scouts overlooked Lee.
"I had great numbers my senior and junior years, and no teams were interested," says Lee. "I don't know what happened."
"I don't know how we missed him," says Diamondbacks scout Ed Durkin, speaking for baseball scouts in general.
Gary Lee suspects that the scouts just couldn't predict how fast Travis would be, how big he'd grow. Coach Gray thinks that any scouts talking to Lee at the time would have mistaken the boy's courtesy and shyness as signs that he was soft.
"There are two kinds of players," says Jim Dietz, the San Diego State coach who eventually took a chance and signed Lee for a college scholarship, "the high-profile ones that everyone moons over and tries to recruit. Fifty to 60 percent of those never pan out. And then there are others who aren't recruited and go on to become good players."
The Lees had to go looking for Dietz.
Travis Lee sat down and wrote a letter that he sent to about 40 colleges; 11 or 12 responded.
Dietz claims that he gets 8,000 to 9,000 letters a year from wanna-be players and parents who haven't planned for their kids' college expenses and feel they deserve full-ride scholarships.
The main reason that Lee's letter rose out of the slush pile was that the San Diego State team had lost its first baseman and Dietz wanted a left-handed hitter. Furthermore, Lee seemed to want very much to attend SDSU, meaning Dietz wouldn't have to talk him into anything.
"If it had been a year earlier or a year later, perhaps we would have had a first baseman," Dietz says, "and when we have a good player for each position, then we don't bring in another one, because then you're going to have unhappy people."
Dietz asked the Lees to send him a videotape of Travis batting and throwing. His interview with Lee consisted of the two talking while watching a baseball game together on TV. At first, Dietz offered a partial scholarship, but the Lees held out, reasoning that a full scholarship would mean a full commitment, that Travis would play instead of ride the bench. Pepperdine University made an offer; Dietz came across.
That summer, Dietz asked Lee to play in the prestigious Alaska League for college players. Dietz has a summer home in Alaska, and while there he watched Lee play and made sure that he got some seasoning before the college season started.
"I was only supposed to be there for two weeks," says Lee, "because Coach Dietz just wanted to see what he signed. Then some guy got homesick and I got to stay there the rest of the summer."
Even in his freshman year in college, however, baseball started to notice Travis Lee. The USA team, the team from which Olympic squads are drawn, put out feelers to Dietz, and Dietz turned them away.
"That's a lot of hype and pressure," Dietz says. "So often in sports we tend to rush the gifted, and sometimes that doesn't work in their best interest," he says. "It could be a pianist, a gymnast, anything. Sometimes by developing at a pace and staying with a rhythm, I think young people develop better, smarter, and have more confidence--and don't just become a flash in the pan."
Dietz sat Lee down and told him he wasn't playing for the national team. Not yet anyway.
"He brought me into his office," Lee says. "It was kind of weird. And he told me all these things are going to happen: The USA team wanted me my freshman year, but Coach told me, 'No, I don't want you missing a lot of school.' He said, 'Don't worry about it, next year they'll want you just as bad.' He said, 'I want you here for three years, and you're going to go first round in your junior year.' He had this vision, and it all came true. I said 'Wow!'"
For Dietz it was a no-brainer. He'd coached his share of major leaguers and claims he was the one who talked Mark McGwire into being a hitter instead of a pitcher. He saw how Lee measured up.
"I told his dad during his freshman year that 'someday you're going to be dealing with a multimillionaire here and you better start planning for it because it's going to happen,'" Dietz says.
The USA team did in fact come calling the next year, and Lee went to the Olympics in Atlanta.
"At the time, I didn't realize it was the Olympics," he says. They'd played the same teams all season, and the Olympic Games were the last games of the season, which he faced as if they were any other game. The team won the bronze medal. Afterward, the significance set in.
"I can't believe I was part of it," he says, but he was unimpressed by winning a medal, which he dismisses as "just a piece of metal."
Which was essentially his response that year to winning the prestigious Golden Spikes Award for outstanding collegiate players. His brand-new agent, Jeff Moorad, had to talk him into attending the ceremony in New York.
And true to Jim Dietz's prediction, Lee was the second pick in the 1996 baseball draft, snapped up by the Minnesota Twins. And only a fluke that will probably never happen again kept him from playing for that team.
The first draft pick that year was offered a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $2 million, the third pick near $1.7 million, and Lee assumed he'd be somewhere near $1.8 million.
"I would have said, 'Give me the paper right away and I'll sign,' you know?" Lee says. "They offered me $1.4 [million]. That's still a lot of money, but how was this guy getting more?"
Lee's agent, Jeff Moorad, who works out of Newport Beach, California, had figured out a glitch in the standard big league contract. Teams were supposed to cough up a contract within 15 days of the draft. But they seldom did.
"It was commonplace that formal contract tenders were not made. It was absolute commonplace," says Moorad.
The remedy, also buried in the contract's small print, was that the offended player could declare free agency. Moorad wanted to test whether the clause could in fact be exercised. Lee was in the mood, and so he told Moorad to give it a go. Moorad's theory held up in court, and Lee was free to play for whomever he chose.
Twenty-one teams came to call, 18 tendered offers and, according to Lee's family and friends and his agent, some of them were larger than the deal clinched by the Arizona Diamondbacks--though they won't say which ones.
"It was a courting process like few have ever seen in the sports world," says Moorad.
The ensuing odyssey was chronicled in an article by Rick Lawes in Baseball Weekly, of which Lee, in character, says, "I didn't read it, I experienced it."
Moorad and Lee jetted to the East Coast and bounced from city to city. They were flown in private jets, wined and dined.
They met personally with team owners: George Steinbrenner, Jerry Colangelo.
"With all due respect to Jerry, Michael Eisner [chairman of Disney, which owns the Anaheim Angels] calling me on a cellular phone from Manhattan took the prize as the most stunning level of courtship that I'd ever seen," says Moorad.
Lee tired quickly of the travel and the dog-and-pony shows.
"I was like, 'This is getting old.'"
He stayed home and let Moorad do the legwork.
Meanwhile, Colangelo and his staff were huddling. Colangelo asked which of the new free agents would be worth pursuing, and the answer came back unanimously: Travis Lee. And so Colangelo, grasping the importance of striking quickly, decided to open up his wallet and make an offer that couldn't be refused.
Joe Garagiola Jr. explains.
"What are the prospects over the next few years that we would be able to draft a player like Travis Lee--assuming a player like Travis Lee was available in the draft? We knew that in 1997 we would be drafting at the bottom of the draft; '98, same thing. So 1999 is the first year we will be even drafting at the top of the pick, and who could predict that a player like Lee would be available?"
The Diamondbacks called Moorad; Moorad called Lee and asked if he was interested.
Lee said, "No, not really."
Moorad pressed: "You know, it's only a 45-minute flight. We'll go over there and not even have to spend the night."
Lee gave in. On October 9, 1996, Lee and Moorad flew to Phoenix. They toured the unfinished stadium, the America West Arena, passed through a locker room that just happened to have a Diamondbacks jersey hanging in a locker, and it just happened to have Lee's name and number 16 on it.
"After I met Jerry Colangelo, I thought, 'Wow, this guy is part of Young Life, he's a believer. He's a winner,'" Lee says excitedly. "Plus to have my jersey hanging in a locker--it was huge!--with my last name on it and my number. St. Louis did that, but because [another player has number] 16, they put 26 on it. It just doesn't look right. I saw my jersey 16, I said, 'I'm playing here.'"
There were other things that appealed to him as well. He liked the proximity to the West Coast. He'd heard from other players, many of whom live here, many more who travel through for spring training, that Phoenix was a place to be. He liked that he'd spend a year in the minors because the Diamondbacks were not yet playing. Some teams who offered contracts might have rushed him right into the big show.
Furthermore, he says, "It's a new organization, and I don't need to follow in anybody's footsteps."
He didn't want to be the next Don Mattingly, the next Steve Garvey, and then be compared hit by hit, play by play.
Earnestly and immodestly, he says, "Who would I be compared to if I came in and played here? There's no one. I get to make my own tradition."
He huddled with Moorad and said, "Jeff, what do you think of this place? Dude, I want to play here."
Moorad went back to talk to Colangelo.
"He came back out and he showed me the paper and it had '10' on it," Lee remembers. "And I'm like, 'What's that?' and he said, 'This is how much they're going to give you.' I said, 'Are you kidding me?' He said, 'No, this is it.'"
Lee's record signing bonus was topped by another player's within a month. Before Lee's, the biggest bonus had been $2.5 million.
Showalter says, "I think if you sent out an e-mail to all the general managers saying okay, Travis Lee is for sale for what we paid him . . ." His voice trails off, but the message is clear.
Lee still hasn't figured out what to do with the money. He talks of it as security for his family, so that they'll all be set for life.
He surprised his mother with a new car and a card signed from all of her children. It reduced her to tears.
"She's always wanted an MG, but I bought her a BMW Z3 and I told her it's the MG of the '90s," he says.
He bought a BMW for himself, as well, a four-door, so that he could give his more impoverished minor league teammates rides to the ballpark. And he bought a large-screen TV to pass time in his minor league off-hours. When he moved up to Triple A, he left it behind for the boys.
Lee started the 1997 season at the Diamondbacks' Level A High Desert team in California. He played 61 games and hit 18 home runs. Because the Diamondbacks did not yet have a Triple A team, they struck an agreement that Lee play out the season for the Tucson Toros, which was a Milwaukee Brewers farm team. The current Tucson Triple A team, the Sidewinders, is owned by the Diamondbacks.
On March 31, 1998, Bank One Ballpark's inaugural game day, Lee started at first base. Then he stepped to the plate and scored the team's and the park's first home run.
His sister Kyndle captures the moment.
"He ran around the bases, and as he was running into the dugout, the guys were giving him high fives," she says. "He looked up and smiled, and that was a big thing. He never looks for us in the crowd and never knows if we're there and rarely ever smiles."
Actual start of an interview with Mr. Nice Guy, Travis Lee: "Let's get this over with."
"It won't be that bad."
"Let's get it over with."
Despite a reputation for unfailing good manners and Christian respect, after a scant two years of celebrity, he was already so burned out on the whole interview process that he didn't want to see another reporter.
He slouched in a chair, one eye tuned to ESPN, which in today's sports franchise offices drones as omnisciently as the Newspeak telescreens in George Orwell's 1984.
Granted, he was cranky at being put on the disabled list, exiled to the team's Tucson training facility for 15 days of rehab.
"This is going to drive me nuts, sitting on the bench and watching the guys play," he said. "At every level I've ever played, I've always played. I never sat on the bench. Now that I'm hurt and can't play, I'm sitting there watching. I don't make a good spectator."
Or a good interview.
Understand right now that an unwillingness to schmooze is absolutely no indication of character. Lee doesn't like to talk about himself. His face brightens when the interview goes off track to mountain biking or dogs or kids. In subsequent conversations, he would sometimes be politely monosyllabic and other times genuinely warm. But he is always awkward with the attention, as if he were nostalgic for anonymity.
"I think he wants to let his abilities show for him," says Andy Fox. "He enjoys being Travis the person instead of Travis the baseball player."
His father points out that Lee does not wear his heart on his sleeve. "Ranjy [Thomas, Lee's close friend and former Bible study leader] came to me in high school and said, 'What's up with Travis?'" says Gary Lee. "'His buddies are always sharing, and Travis doesn't share.' I said, 'Why can't you accept Travis for who he is?'
"What he has is a gift," the father continues. "He was born with it. He didn't do anything to get it, but what he does with it is up to him. The gift came from God. And if you boast of something, boast of what the Lord has done in your life and not what you have done."
Sports interviews are too often done in locker rooms. The reporters stand in one corner as the athletes try to dress or compose themselves before a game. Lee likens it to being a monkey in a zoo. He has told more than one reporter that he won't read what they write, as if to say, "You don't know me, you won't know me, you can't make me open up."
But so far, the press has been very nice to Travis Lee. One beat writer described a complimentary feature he'd written about Lee by saying, "It's corny, but I'm not going to make enemies."
The reporters who have to be in the locker room every day have to be careful about what they write if they ever want to get an interview again.
But there are also sports figures whom reporters want to protect. The Chicago press, for example, looked away from Michael Jordan's various personal transgressions for years. Say it ain't so, Joe. Even reporters need heroes.
It would be easy to take shots at Travis Lee's naivete, but why?
"He's one of those guys that people always want to protect because he's what our game and what the human race should be about," says Buck Showalter. Then he catches himself. "That's getting a little too deep, probably."
Lee may not need the protection. He knows what he does and doesn't want to do. His father calls it "tunnel vision."
Joe Garagiola Jr. recalls that when Lee was invited to participate in a hitting demonstration before the All-Star Game, he only agreed to go if he could leave that same night. He wanted to fly to Washington and watch his little brother play baseball. He had decided that was more important to him than to bask in the spotlight of fan adulation at the All-Star Game.
World-class athletes tend to be insulated anyway. Being on a pro team is a lot like being in the Army: Here's your uniform, get on the bus, get out there and fight. And a youngster who hits the big time, after years of regimented obscurity, suddenly discovers that the price he pays to play the game is that he can no longer walk to the Circle K to buy a cup of coffee and a copy of Sports Illustrated without having to sign autographs.
"It's kind of flattering to get recognized maybe the first time," Lee says. "But now you always think people are looking at you. You're walking around and you see someone turn and you think they're going to be looking at you. Or you hear whispers, or you see people pointing at you. 'Look, that's Travis Lee.' It's kind of weird."
He gets upset by professional autograph collectors, frazzled at seeing a signature with a giant price tag hanging in a memorabilia shop.
"I thought getting an autograph was for your personal purposes," he says, a way to show that you worked up your courage and approached someone you respect and asked for it. He takes offense when he sees the same adults clamoring for signatures that they'll sell at market prices, something for nothing.
"They'll use kids because I told them I won't sign for them anymore," he says. "And I've only been playing for three months now."
In a game in Houston, the autograph brokers leaned over the dugout screaming and waving baseball cards and other memorabilia they wanted autographed. Lee walked around them to sign the programs of the little kids who seemed to have no idea who he was and only wanted an autograph from a ballplayer, any ballplayer.
"I'm passing these guys over and I'm signing for these kids, and they're all mad and they're jumping all over the seats," he says. "And I can see this. I'm not an idiot. I'm laughing inside: Look at these guys making big fools of themselves trying to get my autograph to make money off of it."
Looking for a break from routine, Lee, who is a nondrinker, ventured into a sports bar at Arizona Center. He left after five minutes, cowed by the attention he drew.
"Well, I have to find a lady somehow," he says. Then he adds, "I'm not going to find her in a bar."
Then again, he doesn't know where he'll find her, unless in some little town in the middle of nowhere.
When told that Michael Jordan married a woman who didn't know who he was when they met and didn't care, he says, "I think that'll be the biggest turn-on. If she didn't know who I was, that's a plus right there."
He could take out a Romance classified ad: Tall, dark and handsome pro athlete with 10 million dollars seeks woman unimpressed by same.
"It's going to be tough for me to find the right woman," he says. "Because I'm not sure if she's going to want me for the Travis Lee on the field or the person inside. And I'm sad I didn't have one going into this situation."
Alas, at this point, the Lee on the field can't be separated from the one inside.
"Let me put it this way," says his father, "success brings a lot of things that women like to be around. Travis is a find--not just because he's good-looking, but because his heart is so pure."
Says his friend Ranjy Thomas, "I'd be surprised if Travis ever said he's been in love."
But meanwhile, in the stands on game day, females from 5 to 55 call out to him. The little girls hold up signs that say "Marry me, Travis." The adolescent girls yell his name from the rail along the first-base side of the stadium. The older women lust after him.
Travis Lee is not a lusty guy. He's a puppy-love guy.
A Diamondbacks billboard on Washington Street near 16th Street carries a giant photo of Lee at bat, staring ahead intently, bat raised.
The caption reads "Major League Crush."
It's not only perfectly apt, but a hint of the potentially monumental marketing opportunities that await Travis Lee.
The similarities and differences to Michael Jordan at the same stage of his career are striking.
Ten years ago, Jordan was very close to Lee's age and just starting to cash in on his unprecedented marketability. Like Lee, he was young and innocent, a former Olympian with a squeaky clean image and all-American moral values. Jordan was so frugal that he'd stew over the price of a dozen golf balls even though he was a very wealthy man. Like Lee, he was inaccessible, unreadable, hard to get to know.
Both men are so fluid that they seemed to have been bred for their sports. One scout recently referred to Lee as "Roy Hobbs without the baggage," referring to the Robert Redford character in The Natural, who is supposedly the best baseball player there ever was. Jordan has been described similarly.
But unlike Lee, Jordan was a showman in a showier game. In basketball, as Buck Showalter points out, the worst team in the league can draft a Michael Jordan and be in the playoffs the next year; baseball requires a nine-man team.
Jordan knew how to turn on the cool, how to pop out the glib one-liner in a press conference, how to act intense in the big commercial or the feature film, even when playing opposite someone so formidable as Bugs Bunny.
Will Lee learn to play that game? Will he be able to stomach it?
The endorsement offers pour in.
"The phone rings off the hook," says Jeff Moorad.
A major fast-food franchise has made overtures, but Moorad has put them off. His client, after all, has no short-term need for cash. He can't figure out how to spend the millions he already has.
"Over the next few years, we'll find a handful of partners," says Moorad. He'll take the same route that David Falk took with Michael Jordan and consider only the classiest advertising acts.
Travis says, "My first year I'm just trying to focus on everything on the field. In a couple of years when I feel more comfortable out there, I'll think of opening up."
Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: email@example.com
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