Different dugout, different story
Derrek Lee's debut with first-place Braves just another bad loss by his former team
CHICAGO -- In an apparent affront to history, and in a nod toward the laws of supply and demand, the secondary tickets market was slower than Lou Piniella's trot to the mound for Derrek Lee's long-awaited return to Wrigley Field as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
"Twenty, twenty-five bucks," said Brian, a quiet young scalper standing on the steps of a brokerage on Addison Street and flashing a handful of terrace reserved tickets around noon Friday. "Whatever we can get."
Lee, after all, had been a beloved ex-Cub for only a couple of days. I think he'd need to be gone a month to help resuscitate the scalping market in this dismal Cubs season.
In the road clubhouse, Lee tried to fit in with his new Atlanta teammates, literally and figuratively.
"It's pretty small," Lee said of the hovel where he celebrated after winning the 2003 National League Championship Series with the Florida Marlins. "It's tough to fit 25 guys in there."
Along with a new dressing room, uniform and sense of purpose, Lee, a Cubs mainstay since 2004, found himself on the winning side of another miserable Cubs loss, as the Braves scored three in the ninth to win 5-3. That makes three in a row for Lee against the Cubs, the previous two, of course, coming seven years ago.
"I'm 100 percent Atlanta Brave today," Lee said proudly after the game.
Carlos Marmol couldn't hold a one-run lead, walking three and then giving up a bases-clearing triple to Rick Ankiel, who was down to his last strike, with two outs in the ninth. The Cubs now are 23 games under .500 and getting better at blowing wins every day.
After striking out earlier in the ninth, Lee said he didn't have to catch himself exhorting Marmol to throw a strike.
"No, no. I did pretty good at separating the thoughts today," he said after the game. "It was easier than I thought. It was just weird seeing these guys rounding first in different uniforms. It was definitely strange."
After Lee approved a trade to Atlanta on Wednesday for three Chick-fil-A sandwiches and an option on gravy, Aramis Ramirez is the only starting infielder left from the Opening Day roster.
Ramirez, a quiet leader in the strictest sense, pulled himself away from checking Facebook in the pregame clubhouse to go out and hit a solo homer in the fourth and add an RBI double in the sixth.
While Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster are among the veteran survivors of the Cubs' rags-to-riches-to-rags-again period, Lee follows Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, and Mike Fontenot out the door as the Cubs continue to dispose of veterans who are unneeded for their unimpeded march to fifth place.
The Cubs are inundated with rookies and new faces. It's not a talentless club, but it's clearly in disarray. The Cubs are 7-21 since Piniella announced July 20 that he was retiring.
"It's tough," Lee said. "Because these guys are not only your teammates but they become great friends off the field. It's tough, but we understand the business. We're not playing well, so the finger kind of comes back to us. We've got to point it at ourselves. We didn't play well, and these are the results of it."
This was before the game, and you'll notice he spoke as if he were still on the team, "we" and "us." Old habits die hard. It probably will take until the Braves finish their sweep Sunday for Lee to start saying things like, "They're having a tough go of it over there, but that's baseball."
By Labor Day, he'll be doing the Tomahawk Chop in his car. Still, the aging veteran was trying hard to show his value to the team that won't be asking him back this offseason.
"There are a little extra emotions going on today," Lee said of his 0-for-4, two-strikeout day. "Hopefully tomorrow I can settle down and relax."
However mindful of his past he might be, Lee was positively ebullient in his new Braves hat with the script A. He got to the ballpark early, and when he told manager Bobby Cox he was healthy, he was informed he was hitting fourth and playing first.
With Lee's ease in front of reporters, it seemed like a 102-pound weight was off his shoulders. Now it's all about winning, not answering questions on why you can't win.
"That's all it is," he said. "First of all, I didn't ask to be traded. I was fine over there with those guys. But it's just a new beginning. I feel like a 15-year-old kid on the first day of school. It's exciting. And we're playing to get to the postseason."
He got a standing ovation as he walked to the plate and graciously tipped his batting helmet to the crowd. Dempster stood behind the mound to let him soak in the applause. Lee just missed a first-pitch changeup but flew out to Soriano in left.
Dempster struck out Lee in his second at-bat on three straight pitches. The fans cheered.
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"Ryan's probably one of my best friends in the game," Lee said. "If I take Ryan deep, I'm texting him after the game. He'll know about it."
After taking an unplanned day off Thursday, Lee drove to work at the normal time and tried to park in his usual spot, where he got stopped.
"They played a good trick on me," he said. "I pulled up, and [the parking attendant] said, 'Naw, you can't park here.' I got a little upset, but he told me he was just joking."
After this weekend's series, Lee, a Cub through some good times and even more bad, gets to leave town with a first-place team. His season is just beginning. For the Cubs, it's another year in the books and October vacations.
And just like they always do, the Cubs will bring in some new players this winter and they will offer sincere, na´ve hope.
And in a few years, we'll say goodbye to them just the same.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.