Commentary

No Emmy, but a starring role nonetheless for Cubs' Lee

Updated: September 21, 2007, 3:47 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Like millions of Americans who are in the middle of a taut NL Central division race and enjoying their first day off since Aug. 27, Derrek Lee did the usual Thursday: He got up, drove to Wrigley Field, put on his Cubs uni and then, of course, reported to makeup.

Derek Lee with John Stamos
Stephen Green for ESPN.com"ER" star John Stamos shared some dugout talk with Derrek Lee during Thursday's filming.
This is what fathers do for their daughters, especially ones as heartbreakingly cute as 4-year-old Jada Ryan Lee. You report to work for a 25th consecutive day because, let's face it, how many chances do you get to tell 10-12 million people about the mysterious and, so far, incurable disease that took the sight from your baby's right eye? How many times do you get to make a trade that goes like this: cameo appearance on an October "ER" episode in exchange for a January 2008 episode that will deal directly with the near-stealth Leber's congenital amaurosis (LCA)?

For the Cubs first baseman, the decision took "nanoseconds … a no-brainer," Lee said. "It's not that easy to reach 12 million people."

So less than 12 hours after booting a grounder that nearly cost the Cubs a game and maybe the NL Central lead, Lee dragged himself out of bed Thursday morning and reported back to Wrigley. A makeup artist was there, which is unfortunate because Cubs pitchers Bob Howry and Sean Gallagher were also there at the time.

"The guys were all over me in the clubhouse," Lee said.

Get ridiculed by teammates? Worth it. Spend the better part of a precious off day repeating the same seven lines of dialogue take after take? Hey, anything for Jada and the estimated 3,000 children who suffer from LCA.

You should have seen Jada sitting on her mom's lap in the Wrigley dugout during filming. Camouflage cargo shorts. Plaid shirt. A miniature old-fashioned golf cap. A pair of glamour sunglasses covering those sweet eyes. You wanted to melt.

Instead, it was her old man (and layers of makeup) who was melting in the early afternoon sun. The one-page scene featured Lee (as himself), John Stamos (as Dr. Tony Gates), Miles Heizer (as Joshua, a terminally ill boy) and Natacha Roi (as Serena, the boy's mother). Gates has arranged for the three of them to attend a Cubs game. Their seats are directly behind and at the corner of the home dugout. (Dr. Tony must make some scratch at County General.)

And, as director Christopher Chulack actually said … "Action!"

    JOSHUA
    (to Gates)
    These seats are exceptional. I've never sat this close. Man…

    GATES
    You're welcome.

    (Just then Cubs 1st Baseman, DERREK LEE walks up the dugout steps right in front of them.)

    DERREK LEE
    Derek Lee with John Stamos
    Stephen Green for ESPN.comDerrek Lee "at bat" during the filming of an upcoming "ER" episode.
    Excuse me. You Josh?

    (Josh is too shocked to respond.)

    GATES
    Yeah, he's Josh. Tony Gates.

    DERREK LEE
    Nice to meet you.

    GATES
    Derrek Lee, Josh Lipnicki. And his mom, Serena.

    SERENA
    Hi.

    DERREK LEE
    (handing Joshua a signed ball)
    This is for you. Whole team signed it. Good luck in Baltimore.

    (Joshua takes the ball, can't find words. Gates nudges him.)
    JOSHUA
    Wow … thanks, Mr. Lee.
    (then)
    You know … I gotta tell you … your opponents have a statistical tendency to pitch you high and outside. Wind's blowing out today, you lay off that stuff and you'll murder 'em.

    DERREK LEE
    I'll keep that in mind.

    (Derrek smiles and heads off to practice. Joshua is stunned.)

So am I. If anything, Lee has trouble with the low, outside stuff.

Crasnick: What the Lees face

Earlier this year, ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick took a look at the situation facing Lee and his daughter. Story

Anyway, the script was written by Virgil Williams, 36, who was born and raised in Chicago's Lincoln Park, appeared as an orphan in "Blues Brothers," and spent more than a few afternoons in Wrigley. Williams is the guy who first pitched the "ER" idea to Lee, and who also will write the January episode, which is titled, "Believe The Unseen," in honor of Project 3000, the Lee co-sponsored research foundation that uses the same motto.

"I watch games on [WGN] all the time," Williams said. "I was watching a game one day [in late 2006], and they're talking about Derrek leaving the team … something's wrong with his daughter. I caught the tail end of it, but I'm thinking it must be serious. They kept talking about it, and then they started talking about LCA."

A story idea was born. Williams contacted Project 3000 doctors at the University of Iowa. Then he contacted Lee, who immediately signed on. Then he contacted the Cubs, who waived their usual $60,000 Wrigley shooting fee in exchange for a more modest five-figure donation to Project 3000. How about that? The rare win-win-win situation.

Williams already has the story line in his head. He'll start writing the actual script when he gets back to Los Angeles.

"There's not many moments you can point to in a Hollywood career that's about giving back, about affecting positivity," Williams said.

This is one of them. Of course, it helps that Lee, who gets rave reviews from teammates, opponents, media and management, is as unassuming an All-Star as you'll meet. But a little more than a year ago, when doctors told him and wife Christina that his daughter was going blind in her right eye, Lee decided the only way to raise awareness of LCA was to go public.

"I wouldn't do this otherwise," said Lee, as extras took make-believe batting practice and about 100 "fans" waited for their next background shot. "I'm kind of a private guy when it comes to this. But what they're doing for us is just huge."

Derek Lee with John Stamos
Stephen Green for ESPN.comLee and Stamos at Wrigley Field at "ER" filming.
I didn't see Lee flub a line once. In fact, when Chulack first talked to him about the appearance, Lee told him, "I expect an Emmy for this."

So I asked Lee whether he had earned one of the statuettes Thursday.

"Uh, no."

But he is earning more admirers. Financial contributors too. Teammates and former teammates have pledged and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars toward research. And not long ago, while Lee was at a clothing store appearance, a kid handed him $30 for Project 3000. Said it was from a lemonade stand.

"It kind of restores your faith in people," said Lee, who wore his red Project 3000 bracelet on his left wrist. "People really do care and just want to help. Right now, I've got a $10 check in my locker from a kid who just wanted to help."

Someone from the production crew motioned to Lee that it was time to start filming again. So Lee made his way toward the end of the dugout and waited for his cue.

Meanwhile, Jada sat on the dugout bench at the opposite end and watched her daddy go to work again. If you're asking me, that was the best scene of the day.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. He co-authored Jerome Bettis' autobiography "The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet," which is available now.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

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