Monday, March 24, 2014

#651 - Leron Lee

Leron Lee casts a noble glance somewhere and if that somewhere is across that big pond just west of his home base in San Diego then that is an appropriate destination for his gaze. But that second career was still a few seasons away at the time of this card and ’73 was a transitional time for Leron but not in a good way. He began the season as the everyday San Diego left fielder and was doing well enough offensively with a .290 average through mid-May. But then a protracted slump led to shared starts with Gene Locklear and Jerry Morales who both had relatively hot bats. By the end of the season Leron was used mostly as a pinch hitter, a role in which he did pretty well with a .405 OBA, as new kid Dave Winfield took over left. By the time of this card’s arrival Leron was in another league with a moderately better team but still not in a great state career-wise. That would take a much bigger move.

Leron Lee was a big deal fullback and outfielder at his Sacramento high school and from there was a first round pick by the Cardinals in ’66. After hitting over .400 each of his varsity seasons in HS he remained in Sacramento that summer to play in the town’s Metropolitan League where he hit .457. In ’67 he began his pro career outright with a .297/22/67 line in A ball and then in ’68 moved up to Double A Arkansas where he hit OK - .266/13/65 – but had a tough time with his first experience of overt racism. He demanded to play elsewhere and the next season St. Louis obliged by sticking him in Triple A where he thrived with a .303/17/96 season with 92 runs that got him a late look up top. He remained there in ’70 and split time in right field with Carl Taylor where a few too many K’s kept him from matching his numbers at the lower levels. By the end of that season fellow rookie Jose Cruz was seen as a big comer and early the next June after losing his platoon spot Leron and Fred Norman went to San Diego for pitcher Al Santorini.

Things improved considerably for Lee with the Padres. He took over the starting role in left field, upped his average by nearly 100 points, and cut down on his strikeouts a bunch as his .273 average tied Ollie Brown’s for the best among regulars on the team. In ’72 he was going great guns until an injury took him out for over six weeks in the summer. Still, his .300 average led the team, and he seemed to be the first ever Padre not prone to elongated batting slumps. That lasted all of a year and after the ’73 season Leron went to Cleveland off waivers. With the Tribe he got off to a slow start as a pinch hitter before in mid-May taking over left field for John Lowenstein while he filled in other outfield spots. Leroy had a nice run and was hitting over .300 by mid-June when he cooled off and then didn’t get any appreciable starts until late in the year. His final numbers that season unfortunately mirrored his ’73 ones as he put up a .233/5/25 line in his 232 at bats. He then kicked off ’75 as a seldom-used outfielder and pinch hitter, was released, and then picked up by the Dodgers for whom he did pinch work the rest of the way, finishing the season with a .212 average in only 66 at bats. Around a similarly miserable time up top with LA in ’76 Leron spent most of his season in Mexico where he ended his North American career. He finished with a .250 average with 31 homers and 152 RBI’s and hit .303 in the minors.

Late in the ’76 season Lee was contacted by Jim Lefebvre, the former LA Rookie of the Year who had moved to Japan to play ball and then coach. Lefebvre was one of the few Americans who was able to work well in the disciplined Japanese system and he was able to hook Leron up with the Lotte Orions and give him useful tips on surviving professionally in Japanese baseball. Leron did a lot better than that and would become the most successful American player there. He would put in a total of eleven seasons all with the same club and by the time he finished he had a lifetime stat line of .320/283/912 with a .382 OBA. His average is the best for a career over there for anyone with over 4,000 at bats and his power numbers rank pretty highly also. After a while his brother Leon – dad to future MLB'er Derrek - joined him and did nearly as well, hitting .308 in his ten seasons. Since Leron retired following the ’87 season he has done some coaching and then lots of scouting both in the States and in Japan.

Leron got that fat bonus and had early success in the minors. In ’71 he set a San Diego record with five hits in a game. He was also a fan of model trains.

Here we hook up two Cali kids who played in different leagues:

1. Lee and Dick Bosman ’74 to ’75 Indians;
2. Bosman and Mike Epstein ’67 to ’71 and ’73 Senators/Rangers.

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