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The Zen of Lee
by Alex Ciepley
When I was a wee lad, I once played sick from school, then begged my way into going to see a matinee performance of Karate Kid, Part II with my father.
I totally dug the movie. Not in the way most young boys liked the Karate Kid movies. I thought that kids who pranced around imitating martial arts maneuvers while screaming "hi-yaaa" were an excruciating embarrassment to children everywhere. I also wasn't so into Morimoto's faux wisespeak, the poor man's Yoda.
But I did think that Japan looked freakin' awesome in the film. Pick me up and drop me in that small fishing village with its old school belltower and Bone Dance rituals, and I'd be a happy little camper.
I thought Japan was cool, a place where the good guys were always calm and rational, and where lovers sat around a table and did neat things with teacups while a hurricane brewed outside. I was a quiet kid, eager to please, and the simplicity of emotions shown by Kumiko, Daniel LaRusso's smokin' babe, was appealing. Girlfriend was hot, and girlfriend was Zen.
Derrek Lee isn't exactly Kumiko, but there has been a certain Zen-ification of Lee during his scorching 2005 season. Searching for an answer to how he went from Derrek Lee to DERREK LEE, writers are looking at the three years he spent in Japan as a youngster.
Sports Illustrated ran a story on Lee in the June 20th issue. They weren't too heavy on the Zen-ification, but they can't help but drop in the backstory of the Rising Sun when discussing Derrek's character:
[His] demeanor was shaped in part by the time Derrek spent abroad, where he soaked up the Japanese players' selflessness and devotion to the game.
ESPN The Magazine, in a July 4th cover story on Lee, took it to a whole new level.
All this maturity and self-confidence are thanks in part to the three years he spent in Japan.
...Lee's apparent Zenlike serenity, his ability to stave off the inevitable spikes and drops of a 162-game span, is seen as the most admirable trait a ballplayer can possess.
The kicker in the ESPN article is actually the first line, which reads like a description of The Matrix groupies surrounding a cardboard cutout of Neo: "The seekers approach the tall man with reverence. They touch him, hoping for a tactile transmission of his success."
Maybe Derrek Lee's secret is too simple. Wax on. Wax off.
Part of Lee's Japanese transmogrification comes from his bloodlines. His father Leon was a huge success in the Japanese leagues, and his uncle Leron played well there, too. It doesn't help that Dusty Baker nicknamed him "Rodan", after the giant flying dinosaur in Japanese horror films. But I also think part of it is because the real explanation for his success this year is, well, not such a good story. He seems to be hitting inside pitches better this year, but not much else has changed.
Lee, in the SI article:
People ask me what's different, and I've been trying to come up with a good answer for that question. I didn't change my stance. I'm using the same bat. My workouts in the offseason were the same as always. All I can say is, everything just seems to be in slow motion when I'm at the plate now.
Sometimes good things happen to good ballplayers. Have his ties to Japan suddenly erupted into a Zen-enforced display of hitting ability? Or is he just having the proverbial career year, with a little bit of luck on his side?
I still haven't been to Japan, other than a few stops through the Tokyo airport. I somehow doubt the fishing village of my dreams really exists, or that Kumiko is waiting patiently to pour me a cup of green tea. The serenity that could be found in my Japanese fantasies is still appealing, just as it is tempting to regard Lee as having tapped into some mystical Asia-infused powers. I'm just not so sure the reality of the situations match the fantastic storylines.