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Rob Smaal

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Just when you thought you had seen everything

by Rob Smaal (Jul 29, 2010)

If you've spent most of your life immersed in the game of baseball, at some point you get to thinking that you've pretty much seen it all.

That was how American slugger Leon Lee was feeling back in 1981 when he was playing in Japan for the Lotte Orions, the forerunners of the Lotte Marines. But as he and his brother Leron sat in the dugout one hot summer day, the series of events they saw transpire left them scratching their heads and led to one of the better lines in baseball.

Let's let Leon, the father of Chicago Cubs All-Star first baseman Derrek Lee, tell it.

"We were playing at old Kawasaki Stadium with Lotte," Lee recalled on a Monday at Tokyo Dome while on a business trip to Japan. "We're up to bat and (Kazuyoshi) Yamamoto was our manager that year. We had a situation where we had the bases loaded, one out and a full count on our hitter, catcher (Hiroshi) Takahashi.

"My brother (outfielder Leron Lee) and I are sitting on the bench and we look down and see that our third-base coach has put on the squeeze, with a 3-2 count, bases loaded and one out. We can justify that a little bit. We said, 'OK, we're playing for one run, the pitcher has to throw a strike, so it might not be a bad idea, although we wouldn't do it in the States.'

"Anyway, the other team, which I believe was Seibu, picked up the sign for the squeeze play, so on a 3-and-2 count, with the bases loaded, they pitched out," said Lee, breaking into hearty laughter.

"But that's not the end of the story," he continued. "In Japanese baseball you have to show your fighting spirit and your dedication to the cause, so when the pitcher pitched out, Takahashi dove across home plate and tried to bunt it! He missed the ball and struck out, they got the runner (from third) in a rundown, double play, inning over.

"So me and my brother are sitting there in the dugout, looking at each other, and Leron shakes his head and says to me, 'Hey Leon, you know what just happened there? We just out-dumbed them.'"

Over his 10-year NPB playing career, Lee would have plenty of other bizarre incidents to look back on. After hitting .303 with 31 home runs and 110 RBIs for the Taiyo Whales in 1985, Leon was told by team officials that he would not be retained the following season.

"Huh?" was his reaction. "Did you see my numbers?'"

Lee was then told that he didn't hit in the clutch and it was pointed out that 10 of his RBIs came in one record-setting game against the Hiroshima Carp, so that total wasn't really indicative of his performance that season, according to the front office.

"Well, the only reason I didn't hit in the clutch was because the team didn't have a clutch to hit in," Lee responded.

These days, the 57-year-old Lee splits his time between his home in Sacramento, California, and his job in Tucson, Arizona, where he is promoting a project to try and get Japanese ballclubs to take part in a spring training tournament with MLB split squads and teams from South Korea and Mexico.

Lee, who managed the Orix BlueWave in 2003, was an adviser on "Mr. Baseball," the 1992 Tom Selleck movie about a washed-up major-leaguer who gets dealt to the Chunichi Dragons. When he's not busy as director of Baseball's International Group Tucson project, Lee is usually out on the golf course, where he plays to a six handicap.


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