Northwoods League: This Stinger is a Cal Poly Lee
Willmar shortstop follows a long family line to play in San Luis Obispo
WILLMAR — After months of uncertainty, every player sprinting onto a baseball field this summer is thankful for the opportunity.
Given the twists, turns, and obstacles during his journey to Bill Taunton Stadium, Brooks Lee has many reasons to be appreciative.
Lee, a high-end pro prospect currently attending California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., is enjoying consistent playing time since hitting .342 last summer out of high school for the Corvallis Knights in the West Coast League.
Suffering a knee injury in the fall, the Mustangs shortstop saw very little time on the field this past spring before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the remainder of the season
But in Lee’s mind, as long as the conditions weren’t dangerous, there wasn’t any question whether he’d be back in a baseball uniform in 2020.
“If it was going to be safe, I was going to play,” Lee said. “I needed to get the at-bats in, I just needed to get the time on the field before I get into my sophomore year, or my freshman year again.
“I’m very grateful to be playing again and just being able to be on the field. I know everyone doesn’t have the ability to do that, but that’s why it’s even more special for me.”
The biggest question surrounding Lee this summer was more a matter of where he’d play.
Originally scheduled to be a member of the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts, Willmar was Lee’s fourth option after his teams in Alaska and Wisconsin opted not to have a season.
Playing primarily at second base through eight games with the Stingers, Lee is batting .296 with three walks, two doubles and six RBI.
“It’s been pretty different, honestly,” Lee said of his time so far in west-central Minnesota. “I’m from California, the whole atmosphere is a lot to take in. It’s very different here and I like it a lot, actually. I went to the lake for the first time a couple of days ago and I’ve been having a lot of fun here.”
Long time coming
During a preseason game last October, Lee tore his lateral collateral ligament and biceps femoris, which is connected to the hamstring, right off the bone while running out a ground ball.
Consulting with doctors from the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, Lee had surgery Oct. 31. Operated on by Dr. Michael B. Banffy, a team physician for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Rams, he was expected to be out for six months.
“That was the mental hurdle that he had to get over because he really wanted to get on the field,” said Larry Lee, Brooks’ father and the Cal Poly head baseball coach. “But because of that, he really put a lot of time into his physical therapy.”
Brooks Lee underwent blood flow restriction therapy, which is aimed to regain muscle strength back in the knee without lifting heavy weights. With the help of BFR, he returned earlier than scheduled.
Limited to pinch-hitting duties, Lee made his season debut March 6 against Baylor. Two days later, he notched his first collegiate hit with a two-run double during the series finale with the Bears.
The following weekend, Lee was supposed to be inserted as the team’s full-time shortstop during a four-game home set against nationally ranked Oklahoma, but as was the case across the country, coronavirus wiped out that possibility.
With no games to play, Lee stayed in the weight room and continued to train.
“I knew that I really needed to make a couple of steps forward, keep going in the right direction and try not to let the knee injury be a setback for the year,” he said.
The pros will wait
Not only does Brooks Lee have to wait to showcase his skills in a Cal Poly uniform, the coronavirus cost him the chance to play games this spring with the man that taught him everything he knows.
“When the season ended, there were some emotions on my side that I didn’t get a chance to experience some of those moments on the field,” said Larry Lee, who has been Mustangs’ manager since 2002.
He has helped his son every step of the way. At age 6, Brooks would watch video of his own at-bats. Since then, he blossomed into one of the top pro prospects in the country. Graduating from San Luis Obispo High School in 2019, Brooks Lee hit .437 with six home runs and 78 RBI in his high school career.
He verbally committed to Cal Poly as a freshman, but given his production and talent, he had the eye of many major league scouts. With his bat and quick glove, he received invites to work out for the Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs leading up to the 2019 MLB Draft.
Last year, Brooks Lee was ranked as the No. 41 prospect in Baseball America’s top-500 and was the 37th best player available according to the MLB Draft Tracker. But instead of going pro, he kept his promise to Cal Poly.
Projected to be a top-50 pick, Brooks Lee turned down what would’ve likely been a multi-million deal. He was still selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 35th round, but by playing college ball, he won’t be draft eligible again until his junior year or when he turns 21.
Deciding to stay home, he was also drawn toward continuing the Lee family legacy at Cal Poly. In addition to his father’s long tenure, his grandfather, Tom Lee, was a part of the university for 36 years, coaching baseball, basketball, boxing, football and serving time as the school’s athletic trainer.
“In reality, I’m my own player,” Brooks Lee said. “I’m my own student and that’s what I bring to the table, but I’m very proud to be at Cal Poly as a Lee. It definitely means a lot more to me than it would to the average student or student athlete.”
Brooks Lee’s baseball IQ is probably his greatest strength, and understandably so. He’s grown up around the sport. Not only are his grandfather and father synonymous with baseball in San Luis Obispo, his two uncles played professionally.
Still, this summer in Willmar, Brooks Lee looks to improve and get his game back up to speed. He’s confident in his defensive range, but aims to build on his actual speed and agility while also working on his approach at the plate against better pitching.
“He’s grounded. He’s confident, but he’s not overly confident because he knows this game is difficult,” Larry Lee said. “It’s very humbling and he’s had me say many times, ‘Don’t believe your press clippings.’”