CHICAGO – After seven mostly happy years with the Chicago Cubs, first baseman Derrek Lee has returned to the site of his favorite memory as a ballplayer: the tiny visiting clubhouse at historic Wrigley Field.
Lee made his Atlanta Braves debut on Friday against the very team that dealt him away two days earlier. Batting cleanup, he waved his helmet as he received a standing ovation in the first inning. He then flied out on Ryan Dempster's first pitch, stranding a runner at third.
Earlier, when the 6-foot-5 Lee stepped into the clubhouse — ducking so he wouldn't bump his head on any low-hanging beams — he realized he hadn't been in there since October 2003.
He was with the Marlins then, and he played a major role as Florida rallied to win an epic Game 6 of the NL championship series. He then drove in the winning run in Game 7, depriving the Cubs of their first pennant since 1945.
"That's my last memory of that clubhouse — celebrating," he said. "That's probably the most fun I've ever had playing baseball. That series was even better than the World Series. I know the fans here don't like to hear that, but it was fun for us on that side of the field."
Lee joined the Cubs the following year and was one of several important players who slumped badly as the Cubs lost their grip on a playoff spot in the final week in 2006. The team returned to the postseason the next two years but failed to win a single playoff game. Last season was disappointing, and the Cubs have become a fifth-place laughingstock in 2010.
Lee, wearing No. 27 for Atlanta because Troy Glaus has his familiar No. 25, has been smiling ever since the deal was finalized. All of a sudden, he's playing for a contender again.
"I didn't ask to be traded. I was fine. I love those guys," Lee said. "It's just a new beginning. I feel like a 15-year-old kid on the first day of school. We play to get to the postseason. There's a great opportunity here."
To the Braves, getting Lee for three prospects seems almost too good to be true.
"He's an All-Star first baseman, an unbelievable player," pitcher Tim Hudson said. "Around the league, all you hear is good things about him. He fits in well. I was — and everybody in here was — thrilled to death when we traded for him."
When Lee pulled his car up to the gate guarding the ballplayers' parking lot several hours before Friday's game, the attendant at first wouldn't let him in.
"I got a little upset," Lee said, "but he told me he was just joking."
Once inside the ballpark, the strange feelings really began for Lee, who had 179 homers and 574 RBIs for the Cubs.
"It was weird walking past that (home) clubhouse to get to this one," he said. "Seeing the same workers in the hallway, it was definitely weird walking up the stairs into this clubhouse and putting on this uniform. But I'm excited for it."