CHICAGO – He feels strong again.
It's been a while. First Derrek Lee's wrist crippled him physically, then his daughter's loss of vision in one eye sapped him mentally. Never before had his fortitude so quickly evaporated: Derrek Lee, 6-foot-5, strapping, confident – the picture of strength – stifled by a sucker punch and felled by a haymaker.
"I never stayed down," Lee said. "I couldn't. Not for myself, and especially not for my daughter. So I'll tell you: It was a busy offseason."
Back and forth Lee went, his duty as 4-year-old Jada's daddy to help find a cure for the degenerative eye disease Leber's congenital amaurosis on priority, his obligation as first baseman and franchise linchpin for the Chicago Cubs to return to 2005 form when he might have been the best player in the National League.
The latter part? Well, that took work. Dry swings. Forearm curls. Those hand grips best used for stress relief. Lee sweat to rebuild his right wrist, broken in a freak collision at first base with Rafael Furcal on April 19, 2006.
The former? That takes hope. Tears. Prayers. Lee keeps trying to build the most comfortable life possible for Jada, whose vision is perfect in her good eye, and trying to build awareness via Project 3000, a foundation to help educate people about LCA and eventually eradicate it.
And the dual purposes in Lee's life left him in a better place, the kind in which he can step right back into the batter's box, like he never missed a day, and lead the major leagues in batting average.
He's hitting .390, and though a neck strain has slowed him recently, Lee has done so with authority: 27 percent of the balls he hits are line drives, fifth-best in the major leagues. Accordingly, when he puts the ball in play, Lee is hitting .469, an astonishing number that certainly will recede as the season continues but underlines his hit-'em-where-they-ain't tendency. And even though Lee has hit only two home runs, compared to the 46 he blasted in '05, he's got 17 doubles and figures a bit more lift on his swing will send plenty of balls onto Waveland Avenue.
"We could tell he was back in spring training," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "He hit the ball everywhere, drove it the other way well, turned on some other pitches. You have to be 100 percent healthy to hit the ball that hard. He wasn't shying away from the plate like he was uncomfortable."
Like last summer.
After his injury, the Cubs fell faster than Wile E. Coyote's descent into the canyon, and Lee, wanting to play savior, rushed back. He could swing, he assured himself. He was fine.
In the month following his June 25 return, Lee hit .227 with one home run, four RBIs and 26 strikeouts in 75 at-bats. Cubs manager Dusty Baker kept writing him into the lineup card because Lee kept saying he felt fine, and in his mind, he was. Anyone who saw him knew better.
"He'd just gotten the (five-year, $65 million) extension, so I can understand why he pressed," Hendry said. "I was on the trip to Washington and sat in the stands, a Saturday-afternoon game. Derrek took some awful swings. From the side, you could see it.
"I told Dusty, 'That's enough.' "
Back on the disabled list Lee went for almost five weeks. He returned Aug. 28 and still wasn't the same. Jada's condition was worsening, and Lee's state of mind was engulfed by it. Finally, on Sept. 15, he left the Cubs to spend time with her, family before baseball always.
As the prognosis for Jada improved, so did Lee's yearning to start playing again. He's 31 now, square in the prime of his career. After so many years of doing the cha-cha around what he could be, Lee is fully aware of what he is
"When you begin to understand your swing," he said, "it makes it easier, mentally. I'm not saying it's easy to hit. But when you learn about yourself, you see the game in a completely different fashion.
"I'm dictating what I want to do. By no means is it easy. Well, it's easier when you're feeling good."
Good? Good doesn't begin to describe it. Cubs outfielder Cliff Floyd, a teammate of Lee's for five years with the Florida Marlins, says Lee "is right next to Barry (Bonds) and (Albert) Pujols" among the NL's best hitters. Cubs manager Lou Piniella, pressed to compare Lee to another hitter, chose Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, himself tall and powerful. And slowly, as Lee pieces his life back together, he's feeling more like himself, like the superlative hitter and father, like someone who can derive strength from one place and unleash it in another.
"I feel great," Lee said