Lee's a big hit for U.S. Baseball: Travis Lee leads what might be the most potent Olympic lineup the United States has ever fielded.

July 09, 1996|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

BOWIE -- Imagine a baseball team that includes Barry Larkin, Will Clark, Mark McGwire and B. J. Surhoff.

Sounds imposing, but Skip Bertman would take players such as Travis Lee of San Diego State, Mark Kotsay of Cal State-Fullerton and Jacque Jones of Southern Cal over the amateur versions of those current major-leaguers, who were members of the 1984 Olympic squad.

"Historically, American teams have always pitched well and played great defense," said Bertman, manager of the U.S. Olympic team and winner of three College World Series titles as coach of Louisiana State. "I told our guys that they got this thing backwards. This could be the best-hitting team that we've put together, and that includes the tremendous team of '84."

The main reason is Lee, Team USA's dangerous cleanup hitter and the second player taken in this year's draft, by the Minnesota Twins. The left-handed-hitting first baseman leads the Olympic team in home runs (11), RBIs (34), runs (35), doubles (10), walks (14), slugging percentage (.987), on-base percentage (.538) and stolen bases (four).

"He's the best amateur player I've ever seen," said Bertman, who predicts Lee will crack the majors next summer. "He's an impact player, and that's why he was the top position player taken in the draft. He has every tool and rarely ever gives an out away."

Lee's consistency comes from his carefree attitude. Negatives don't faze him.

Last week, Lee went hitless in eight at-bats -- one of his longest droughts of the Olympic exhibition season -- including striking out twice and hitting into two double plays. The skid vanished when Lee crushed a 415-foot homer.

Lee is on a pace to hit 18 homers, two off the Team USA season record set by Tino Martinez in 1988. And he still has not gone back-to-back games without a hit in a U.S. uniform.

"I think my best asset is my head," Lee said. "I never get too low. If I strike out or pop up, so what? Everybody does it, and I'll be up next time looking for a hit."

Baseball wasn't always a relaxing subject for Lee. Coming out of high school in Olympia, Wash., Lee wasn't drafted and received virtually no offers from colleges.

Not only did Lee bat .603 and garner all-state honors his senior year, but he also posted a 49-game hitting streak, two short of the national prep record.

The situation baffled Lee, who finally prodded a scholarship from San Diego State after sending Aztecs coach Jim Dietz a videotape.

"It's a Cinderella story, but you've got to be a prince for that story to come true," said Lee's father, Gary, who is handling baseball contract negotiations.

Right now, all Lee wants to focus on is winning the first baseball gold medal for the United States. The Americans won a gold in 1988, when baseball was a demonstration sport, and failed to get a medal in 1992, losing to Cuba and Japan in the elimination round.

Recently, Team USA proved itself as a medal contender by winning two of five over heavy favorite Cuba.

Team USA scored 24 runs and pounded out 42 hits in the Cuban series. Lee was a major offensive force, going 9-for-16 (.563) with two homers, five RBIs and three doubles.

"Last year, we got real excited when we won [against Cuba]," Lee said. "We jumped on each other and acted like we'd won the World Series. This year when we won, we just treated it like a normal game. It was kind of cool seeing everyone just shake hands like it was no big deal.

"We know we can compete with these guys, no problem. It's just on any given day, one team's going to beat the other. We know we can beat them any day."

The Lee file

Name: Travis Lee

Size: 6-3, 205

Bats/throws: Left

Position: First base

Age: 21

Hometown: Olympia, Wash.

College: San Diego State

College statistics: .347 average, 26 home runs and 155 RBIs in three seasons.

Team USA statistics: .421 average, 14 home runs and 76 RBIs in two seasons.

Pub date: 7/09/96

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