Unfortunately, Derrek Lee sometimes talked a better game than he played. The now ex-Cub was a tower of dignity and common sense even when he did not produce for power for two seasons in 2007-08, or completely fell into the ditch this season.
He never made more sense than late Wednesday afternoon, when he explained why he OK'd the deal to the Atlanta Braves compared to using his no-trade rights to veto a trade to the Los Angeles Angels nearly a month ago.
"I think having to hear about losing puts you in a negative environment," he said. "I don't think that's conducive to winning. I think you want a little more positive energy going on. But also I think everyone understands that when you come here. That's what you're going to hear, until a team wins.
"So, honestly, that's one of the enticing things about coming here. Everyone wants to come here and be on that team that finally breaks the so-called curse."
Interestingly, manager Lou Piniella, who also has punched his ticket out of town, agreed with Lee a few minutes later, speaking in an almost-hoarse voice. The endless losing has worn down Sweet Lou. Lee's departure signaled the final breakup of 2007-08 teams built specifically for Piniella's big-name guidance.
"It's not easy," Piniella said of the challenges of winning amid the shadow of Cubs history.
But make no mistake about it, take away the losing syndrome, the Cubs exist in a world-class city that should perk up any player.
"Chicago is a great place to play," Lee said. "As a player, you love playing in front of passionate fans. You know you're going to have a big crowd every day and they care what happens. As a player, those are the type of things you look for."
What Lee may not realize is that passion has dramatically cooled this year, pounded out of thousands of Cubs fans by the almost continual negative news that began with the 2008 postseason flop, combined with too-high ticket prices and an economy that refuses to boom again. His last official day as a Cub featured half-empty bleachers, a June-July-August sight not witnessed in decades, and an actual crowd count dramatically lower than the announced 33,267.
The instant analysis of Lee's Cubs career was that he was indeed more statesman and low-decibel clubhouse leader than impact run producer. A fourth wheel on a quartet of 30-homer producers on the aborted wild-card playoff team in 2004, Lee perhaps spoiled everyone with his 46-homer, .335 season in 2005. He also drove in 107 runs, a fine total, but perhaps 20 less than you'd figure with his other lofty numbers.
Whether his broken wrist of early 2006 hampered his 2007-08 power numbers (just 42 homers total) is up for debate. Lee never shed any light on that issue. He didn't crumble as badly as Alfonso Soriano and certified clutch hitter Aramis Ramirez in the 0-6 postseason crater of 2007-08, but he also did not come up big, either. A big second half and final 35-homer total in 2009 gave hope for a career power revival that was quickly dashed by an endless slump from Opening Day forward this season.
Unfortunately, Lee's lasting farewell image is exercising his team leadership by aiming profanity at Carlos Zambrano during his June 25 dugout tirade at The Cell. Now, the onus of leadership falls on Ryan Dempster, last of the legit clubhouse presences from the playoff teams, and newly arrived Marlon Byrd. Piniella said he'll have to call the team together by Friday to lay down the law about not mailing in the rest of a season that will only avoid 100 losses because the Cubs did not lose enough early on.
You wish Derrek Lee, a good man, well on his new team. Interestingly, the Braves are a franchise that is held up as a model throughout the game, where good character is prized over gaudy statistics, where player development is the specialty of an organization that constantly re-generates itself. As Lee looks around his new teammates playing for no-nonsense manager Bobby Cox Friday in Wrigley Field, he may wonder why his old team couldn't resemble his new one.