Leon Lee, local baseball legend
Baseball Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby famously said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” One veteran member of Sacramento's baseball community wants no part of this. Though it's offseason for the team he broadcasts for, the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, Leon Lee is a busy man. The 62-year-old Sacramento native, one of the first Americans to star in Japanese baseball, is an owner of a new collegiate summer team called the Sacramento Stealth that begins play next June. Lee took some time to chat about getting more kids into baseball, supporting inner-city youth and inside baseball about, well, baseball.
You’re going to be the owner of the team?
Yes. I’m one of the owners of the league and CEO of our group that has started. It’s called SIBA, Sacramento International Baseball Association, which is the ownership group and which will be running the summer college league wood-bat franchise here in Sacramento. Right now, I’m in the process of hiring managers, coaches, general managers, and we’re recruiting players from Division I and Division II colleges and getting everything prepared and ready to go for the league. There’s other franchises. There’s Lodi, Sacramento, Yuba City, and Chico and then Medford, Oregon and Portland, Oregon.
Does the west coast have a summer collegiate league right now?
Not a good one. A few years ago, I managed a team in Lodi called the Lodi Grape Sox, and they were part of a new Sierra League. But the Sierra League couldn’t survive. It wasn’t very strongly financially backed. And it was pretty competitive, but it still fell short of what we’re doing here with the Great West League.
As far as your coaches go, do you have anybody in mind?
My manager of the ball club is Larry Wolfe. Larry was an ex-major league player, played in the big leagues with Boston and Minnesota, Cordova High School product, played a few years in the big leagues, played in Japan, great knowledge of the game. His pitching coach is Randy Lerch, who was a first-round pick out of Cordova, pitched about 10 or 12 years in the major leagues.
Our whole [concept], with our program and creating our own league and everything, is to have each team coached by an ex-professional player … All the college players and all of our amateur players will be completely surrounded by ex-professional players so they're getting the proper instruction, so there's not the stress of having to win ball games but to develop talent.
Is this the busiest offseason you’ve had in awhile?
Yeah, it is. It’s been really busy, can’t really commit to anything. But it’s fun. I think just being involved when the city had asked me to do the renovation of an old historic park like Renfree [Field, located in Del Paso Heights], it was interesting in that we’re bringing a lot of interest in baseball back. But also, part of it is reaching into the inner cities and getting more kids playing baseball, being able to scholarship in the baseball programs without dealing with the high cost of baseball now. Travel cost has become really expensive, very exclusionary, and a lot of kids aren’t playing because they can’t afford it. [When] we grew up, we didn’t have to pay all that money to play baseball, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to play. What we’re trying to do is bring some of that back.
Do you have any kind of special focus on recruiting minority players?
I got involved with Major League Baseball. Jerry Manuel brought me in. He’s on the task force for Major League Baseball called Elite Development Invitational. The idea is Major League Baseball’s made this huge commitment, a huge budget to get more kids playing baseball for free. And that includes everybody, but especially inner-city kids. We’re implementing that concept here in Sacramento because historically, back in our day, there was a lot of great baseball players.
Jerry Royster. Rowland Office. Dusty Baker. Your brother Leron Lee. You.
Looking at the major league stats, in our day, you were looking at about 28 percent African Americans playing Major League Baseball. Now, it’s somewhere down in that 5-and-a-half percent [range]. Even here, like around the country, we’ve literally taken a whole culture out of the game. Where we used to play tons of ball, now you don’t see a lot of African Americans playing baseball. They’re moving more into football, basketball, more sports. Not only do you give them extra options, because there are not a lot of baseball scholarships out there for college, but our hope and our goal [through a partnership between EDI and the wood-bat league] is to where we can supplement some scholarship money to encourage the kids to go to college and play baseball, not always football or basketball.