"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.