CHICAGO - When opposing players reach first base, they ask Derrek Lee what he's eating. They touch the Cubs star, hoping some of his magic rubs off on them.
And he hears plenty of questions about batting.400, and about winning the Triple Crown.
That's because he leads the National League in batting average (.386 through Saturday) and is second in home runs and RBIs (25 HRs and 67 RBIs through Saturday). He's bidding to become baseball's first.400 hitter since Ted Williams batted.406 for the Red Sox in 1941, and the major leagues' first Triple Crown winner since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
But there are no superstitions at work. There is no pregame ritual, no lucky charm in his back pocket.
There is no quirky explanation for Lee's astounding first half of the season.
"I'm not doing anything different," the Chicago first baseman says. "The game has slowed down. When I'm at the plate, everything's almost in slow motion. I have a real good feel for what the pitcher's going to throw to me. I have a good idea what kind of swing I want to take."
Lee points out that he was productive before this season - just not like this.
He averaged nearly 28 home runs the previous five seasons, but his career batting average was.266. He was perceived as a talented player who had not realized his potential.
"I was doing the best I could do," says the 29-year-old Lee, who the Marlins traded to the Cubs for Hee Seop Choi in November 2003. "We won a World Series (with Florida in 2003). I felt like I had good seasons there. Obviously, I felt I could get better. At the same time, I felt like I was playing well."
Lee says he didn't adjust his stance or swing this season, so maybe the surge is the product of patience. His strikeouts are down slightly from approximately one every four at-bats the previous five seasons to one every five. After walking 68 times last year, he has 39 in 76 games.
Maybe that helps explain the spike in Lee's batting average.
Or maybe it's maturity blending with athleticism and genetics.
Lee had a baseball scholarship waiting for him at North Carolina, and Dean Smith wanted him to redshirt his freshman basketball season and play as a sophomore. But in 1993, the Padres drafted him 14th overall out of El Camino High School in Sacramento, Calif.
"A lot of times, people that are great athletes hit their peak around 28 to 32, and we were fortunate that we got him at a time where I think he was just about ready to blossom into an even better player than he was in Florida," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry says.
Derrek Lee grew up around ballparks, watching his father, Leon, who played 10 seasons in Japan.
"The main thing is being around the park," the younger Lee says. "Running around, playing catch, taking batting practice kind of gives you your instincts for the game. Watching my dad everyday, I'm sure I picked up parts of his game."
Since 1941, the only players to bat over.380 are Williams in 1956 (.388), Rod Carew in 1977 (.388), George Brett in 1980 (.390) and Tony Gwynn in strike-shortened 1994 (.394).
Cubs manager Dusty Baker says.400 is realistic if Lee stays healthy. He mentions a couple of other marks that for decades seemed unapproachable - Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games played, a record that Cal Ripken smashed, and Hank Aaron's 755 home runs, a mark within Barry Bonds' reach.
"He's right there hitting it," Baker says. "If anything, I think it probably helps that he's playing first base. It's not as strenuous a position as shortstop or center field. It's not out of the question."
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, a former Marlins coach, says it was a matter of time before Lee had a breakthrough season and said trading him was "one of the biggest mistakes" the Marlins made. He called Lee the "best first baseman I've seen" and said the coaches and manager pleaded with management to remain patient.
Hendry said the trade most likely was due to the Marlins' contract situation.
"At the time, (Florida) had Mike Lowell getting extended and a lot of people coming off the World Series success," the Cubs general manager said. "You can't always keep everybody you want, because of budgetary reasons. The trade made sense for them at the time because Choi was making so much less money."
Lee signed a three-year, $22.5 million deal last spring, and this is the payoff: a bid at history, a push for National League MVP.
"For a guy to hit home runs and still be around the.400 mark, that's Babe Ruth-ish," Cubs infielder Todd Walker says.
Lee realizes how long it's been since a player hit.400 or won the Triple Crown. He doesn't need a history lesson. So he shrugs when asked about being linked with Williams and Yastrzemski.
"I understand they're going to talk about it, but it's so early," Lee says. "That's not one of my goals. My only goal is to play every day, stay healthy, try to get this team into the playoffs.
"No one's going to hit.390," he adds. "It just doesn't work that way. It's been a great stretch."
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