Commentary

Cubs lose a good player and a class guy

Derrek Lee was not the reason the Cubs failed to win big

Updated: August 18, 2010, 11:56 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Derrek Lee left the Cubs and his seven-year career with the team Wednesday presumably pain-free after receiving an epidural two days earlier for the bulging disk in his back.

Many Cubs fans are left with the same numb feeling.

It's too bad.

And it's probably not Lee, who was a good player, a solid citizen and a class guy, a real trifecta for a high-profile professional athlete. More like guilt by association, and his connection to one of the most successful and at the same time most frustrating eras in Cubs history.

[+] EnlargeDerrek Lee
Frank Orris/Icon SMIDerrek Lee was the Cubs' most talented hitter since Sammy Sosa's departure.

Lee was one of the leaders, one of the players who was supposed to finally lift the Cubs to uncharted territory. And yet one might argue, harsh as it might be, that his biggest effect on Chicago was his two-run, game-tying double in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series as a member of the eventual world champion Florida Marlins.

At the same time, you can't blame him for the Cubs' ultimate failures. After the Cubs traded Sammy Sosa, it was D-Lee who made it extra-easy not to miss Sosa with a career year in '05. He won the NL batting title, hitting .335 with 46 home runs.

His broken wrist sustained the following season -- less than two weeks after signing a five-year, $65 million contract extension -- was a major setback for the Cubs, who went 19-40 during his absence. As for Lee, there are those who believe he never did find his power stroke, although he did top 30 again in 2009 with 35 home runs and a career-high 111 RBIs.

Lee was not the reason for the Cubs' playoff failures, as he was a collective 10-for-23 in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons with three doubles against the Dodgers in '08, although alas no RBIs during the two three-game sweeps.

I was among those who, while acknowledging his leadership, wished he were a little more outspoken, a bit more demonstrative. Clearly, that just wasn't his personality, and yet there was Lee, drawing a five-game suspension in June 2007 for charging the mound on his way to first base after San Diego pitcher Chris Young threw a pitch near his head, hitting him on the wrist.

In the end, however, we will remember Lee for his restraint. While he took the brunt of Carlos Zambrano's nonsense with only mild rebuttal during the pitchers' meltdown this season, Lee never uttered a harsh word publicly about Zambrano.

[+] EnlargeDerrek Lee
Jerry Lai/US PresswireDerrek Lee twice led the Cubs to the playoffs.

It might have failed to feed the hungry media beast, but it would have served no purpose for an already battered Cubs team.

Lee was an excellent first baseman for the Cubs, a very good hitter. But there are those who will remember the invisible Aprils and Mays, the rally-killing double plays, the fact that he never quite reached superstar status.

Maybe in that way, if not responsible for the frustration, he still epitomizes it.

"I don't know," Lee said when asked what the Cubs are missing. "The bottom line is still getting the right group of guys together. You look at '08: We had a great team, but we didn't play well at the right time. It's about putting the right group together and playing well at the right time, for the four weeks in October. I think you start looking further than that and you're making it more complicated than it needs to be."

But the Cubs are nothing if not complicated, and Lee knows it as well as anyone, demonstrating it when he attempted to answer whether the 102 years of futility wear on a player.

"Having to hear about losing kind of puts you in a negative environment," he said. "That's not conducive to winning. You want a little more positive energy going on. But I also think everyone understands that when they come here. That's what you're going to hear, until the team wins. That's one of the exciting things about coming here. Everyone wants to be on that team that finally breaks that so-called curse."

So which one is it? Impossible to overcome or exciting for the challenge?

One thing he did know is that he'll miss it.

"Chicago is a great place to play," Lee said. "As a player, you love to play in front of passionate fans. You have a big crowd every day, and they care about what happens."

Except the fans haven't been so passionate lately and the crowds not so big.

That's not Lee's fault. He made his decision to leave after deciding to stay two and a half weeks ago for his own reasons. He already has a World Series ring, but you can't blame him for wanting another.

"It just felt right," he said, "and the chance to go to the postseason is tough to pass up. They have a great organization. I always respected Bobby [Cox]. Good group of guys over there."

Maybe it's the right group.

It surely isn't here.

"It's unfortunate we got ourselves in the spot we're in now," said Cubs GM Jim Hendry, who made one of his best moves when he acquired Lee for Hee Seop Choi seven years ago. "The overall situation we're in makes us all somewhere between miserable and sad every day."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.