Lee looking for redemption with Orioles

Veteran first baseman signs one-year deal to show he's not finished

April 02, 2011|Peter Schmuck

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — — Derrek Lee shouldn't have anything to prove at this point in his 14-year major league career, but he's going to try to prove something anyway.

Two years ago, he was all over the National League leaderboard. He ranked in the top five in RBI (111), slugging percentage (.579) and OPS (.972), and finished ninth in the balloting for NL Most Valuable Player.

Last year, he tore a ligament in his right thumb on the first day of the regular season and played hurt from start to finish, but still managed to hit 19 homers and drive in 80 runs for the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves.

So, he bristles just a bit at the thought that a lot of people wrote him off when he entered the free-agent market last November, and he admits that he has embarked on Orioles chapter in his career with a chip on his shoulder.

"I guess once you hit 35, you're in decline,'' said Lee, who had the first two hits of his Orioles career in tonight's 3-1 victory at Tropicana Field. "It wasn't so much the teams (he was negotiating with). It was reading the articles that said I was only going to get a one-year deal because I was in decline. "It's not a big chip, because I know what I can do, but it's a little chip."

He is not alone. He wasn't the only proud baseball veteran who had to settle for a one-year contract with the Orioles this season. Designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero had a terrific season in 2010 and helped lead the Texas Rangers to their first World Series, but he had to wait until February before the O's finalized a one-year contract that was more a reflection of his age than his recent performance.

Lee, who underwent surgery to repair the thumb in November, also isn't the only of the club's upgraded offensive lineup who arrived at spring training with some residual medical issues. Both he and second baseman Brian Roberts kept the club in suspense for several weeks as they worked to get into playing shape, but both answered the bell for the season opener on Friday night and were back in the lineup on Saturday night.

Depending on your point of view, there are two ways to look at that. It's easy enough to make the case that the Orioles lineup is riddled with aging players and physical question marks — and Lee would fit into both categories after being dogged by wrist and foot soreness for a big chunk of the spring. But you could look at it another way, too.

Every one of those guys is hungry to prove that perception wrong.

"I think we all are competitive professional athletes,'' said Roberts. "I don't do stuff to prove anything to anybody. I don't think that can be your motivation on the field, but you don't like to hear people say that you can't do something or you're over the hill when you don't feel like you are."

Lee and Guerrero are both of that frame of mind, though Guerrero already has spent a full year proving that he can still play at a very high level. He struggled through an injury-plagued final season with the Los Angeles Angels in which he appeared in just 100 games and his average fell below .300 for the first time as major league regular. Last year, he batted .300, with 29 homers and 115 RBI and won The Sport News Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Orioles coach Willie Randolph knows exactly where they're coming from. He batted a career-high .327 during the 1991 season, but he would hang it up at the age of 37 after just one more season.

"It happened to me,'' he said. "I had one of my best years the year before I retired. It's really a self-motivational thing. It's not so much that you're trying to prove everybody wrong. It's just another challenge and you want to step up to it.

"Derrek, he doesn't make excuses. He went to Atlanta and they were a contending team, so he answered the bell when he probably shouldn't have been playing."

The Orioles can only hope that the combination of their promising young hitters and this handful of determined veterans can take them to a new level this year. That's still something of a long shot in the tough American League East, but stranger things have happened.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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