At first, Marlins provide second generation

Leon Lee's son Derrek followed in Florida by `grandson' Choi

Baseball

December 26, 2003|By Mike Berardino | Mike Berardino,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

NEW ORLEANS - For the past six seasons, Leon Lee has been the father of the Florida Marlins' first baseman.

Now he's the "grandfather" of the Marlins' first baseman.

Confused? That's understandable, especially after last month's trade that left Lee right in the middle of a classic payroll-for-potential swap. Sent off to the Chicago Cubs was Derrek Lee, Leon's son, a player coming off a Gold Glove season and, at 28, just growing into his vast offensive gifts.

In return, the Marlins received South Korean slugger Hee Seop Choi, who has called Leon Lee his American grandfather since signing with the Cubs for $1.2 million in March 1999.

"Hi, Grandfather," begins the familiar voice on their weekly calls. "It's Choi. How are you?"

The elder Lee has deep roots in Asian baseball. As a player, he became a legend in Japan, along with his brother, Leron.

Leon Lee spent several years coordinating Pacific Rim scouting for the Cubs, managed last season in Japan and now serves as a special assistant to the president for the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro Suzuki's former team.

Of all the Asian players he has signed, Lee might be closest to Choi, 24.

"I made a promise to his father when we signed him," Lee said at the winter meetings.

"I told him, `Don't worry, I'll be like his second father. I'll take care of him.' That's really important to the parents in Korea. It's even more important than the money is."

Back home in Kwang Ju, a rural area far from the hustle and bustle of Seoul, the Chois own and operate a watermelon farm.

It's a true family operation, with parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, Hee Seop and his two younger siblings helping out.

"Very hard-working people," Lee said. "It's a very tight community, very close, out in this little bitty village area."

They take ripe watermelons off the ground with their hands, load the melons onto tractors and later conveyor belts, take them to the market and hope for the best.

Sort of like the Marlins are doing with replacement parts like Choi, catcher Ramon Castro and reliever Mike Neu.

There's an outside chance the Marlins will stun the baseball world and sign Vladimir Guerrero as a free agent. If that happens, Choi's big opportunity likely evaporates, with former Oriole Jeff Conine or Miguel Cabrera moving to first.

The more you listen to Lee talk about his Korean "grandson," the more you hope he finally gets that extended chance to play.

Discipline. Responsibility. Pride. Those were the tenets that guided Choi's upbringing.

In his early baseball years, Choi and his mother had a deal. If he got a hit, he would eat meat for dinner. Go hitless and it was vegetables only.

Maybe that's why Choi's favorite American pastime involves utensils.

"I've never seen anybody eat like him," Lee said. "We went to breakfast one time, he had 10 eggs, two orders of bacon, two orders of toast. When he first came over, I took him to a steakhouse, but he ordered three steaks. I said, `I can't afford that.'"

Next time they went to a Hometown Buffet restaurant. Choi, 6 feet 5 and 240 pounds, wasn't satisfied until his fifth trip through the serving line.

His favorite food is a traditional Korean eel dish, but Lee says Choi will grow to love rice and beans and Cuban coffee and whatever else South Florida has to offer.

He'll hop into his Jeep and tool around side streets and unfamiliar neighborhoods, eagerly adding to his collective experience.

"He loves American culture and style," Lee said.

"He loves speaking English. Two weeks after he gets to Miami, he'll know where every street is. He's really smart, adventuresome. He'll get out there. He'll get to meet people. He'll find his way around."

One of Choi's most treasured possessions is his Arizona driver's license. He splits his winters between South Korea and Vancouver, Wash., where his agent lives.

An easy smile, firm handshake and outgoing personality are other attributes that make Choi impossible not to like.

Take his first meeting with Lee. It happened in Cocoa Beach, Fla., about six years ago, when the South Korean national team was holding secret workouts in preparation for an international tournament.

Lee, through his connections with the South Korean coach, was allowed to watch practice, but he purposely dressed down for the occasion. Beat-up jeans. T-shirt. Nothing that would identify him as a Cubs scout.

"I saw [Choi] right away, but he didn't know who I was," Lee recalled. "First thing, he comes right over and says, `Hi, how are you? I'm Choi.' He came to me. Just wanted to say hello to someone coming out to watch practice."

Two months from now, Choi will get to introduce himself to a whole new set of curious baseball observers.

Painful as it was to see Leon Lee's son leave, perhaps his South Korean "grandson" will fill Derrek's large spikes in time.

Get enough hits, and manager Jack McKeon might even take him to Manero's for a steak. Or three.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Calendar

Jan 5-15: Salary arbitration filing.

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