Dae-Ho Lee had thrown his last warm-up grounder before the top of the seventh inning Sunday when a guy sitting behind the first base dugout yelled at him.
“Dae-Ho! I want to hug you!”
Lee, who speaks next to no English, probably didn’t understand the request, but he didn’t pretend not to hear it. He smiled and pointed a finger toward his eyes, then toward home plate, as if to say: “Watch the game.”
Pro athletes tend to limit their interaction with the public to signing the occasional autograph before or after a game. Lee is more engaging than that.
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Despite the disappointment of his Friday demotion to the Rainiers, he has quickly adapted to Cheney Stadium, its fans and Triple-A baseball in general.
“There’s less pressure here than in the big leagues,” he said through a translator Sunday afternoon after the Rainiers’ 7-3 victory over Las Vegas. “Since I got here I’ve had a good feeling. No pressure.”
Lee led off the second inning with a home run down the left field line. He added a single and a walk, following up on a 2-for-4 effort Saturday that included a double.
For a slugger whose long-ball bat abandoned him in the Mariners’ second half — one homer after the All-Star break — the productive weekend suggested Tacoma could be as therapeutic for Lee as it was for Seattle outfielder Nori Aoki.
The game plan with Lee is calling for the kind of repetition unavailable to him in Seattle, where he was used as a platoon-system first baseman who typically sat against right-handed pitching.
“He’s here to get at-bats,” said Rainiers manager Pat Listach. “He’s going to play every day. If he needs a day off, he’ll tell me and we’ll go from there. But he’s going to play against every lefty we face, for sure.”
As a consequence, Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto’s idea of alternating D.J. Peterson and Dan Vogelbach at first base for Tacoma has been put on hold. Vogelbach served as designated hitter and Peterson played third Sunday, giving the Rainiers a potent heart-of-the-lineup attack for their very alive playoff drive.
While winning is emphasized at every minor league level, the most significant purpose of Triple-A is to groom prospects for the big leagues — or in the case of Lee, regrooming veterans for a return.
“I think his timing was off with his leg kick,” Listach said of Lee’s 4-for-52 skid in the big leagues.
Lee’s batting average dropped from .319 on June 4 to .246 on Friday, when the 34-year-old was optioned to Tacoma along with starting pitcher Joe Wieland.
“He’s here to work on his timing,” continued Listach. “When you’re not playing every day — when you’re a platoon player, like he was up there — your timing can get out of whack.”
“There was a lot of pressure because I wasn’t playing every day, and I was becoming more aggressive with my at-bats,” he said. “I got greedy. My strike zone got bigger.”
Lee needed no introduction to his new manager. They worked together for almost two months during spring training, when it appeared the star from South Korea might need a few weeks in Triple-A to acclimate himself to American culture.
But not only did Lee survive the last roster cut of the spring, he revealed himself as a force on the field and a sweet-tempered teammate off of it.
“He fits right in,” said Listach. “Everybody flocks to him because he’s the center of attention, even though there’s a language barrier. Everybody understands he’s a happy-to-lucky guy who comes to play.”
Liberated from the pressure of trying to fix his swing on an incremental basis — starting once or twice a week, pinch hitting now and then — Lee gets the opportunity to play as much as he wants.
His power numbers may have dropped a ton since the All-Star break, but the smile never went away. As Listach noted, it fits right in.
“I love the fans in Seattle,” said Lee. “But I want to be close to them here, too.”