Former Robinson pitcher Chris Lee signs with Astros
TAMPA - Sitting inside a Tampa Beef 'O' Brady's, a new Houston Astros baseball cap firmly affixed to his head, pitcher Chris Lee grinned, shaking that head. "Tell him about the first baseball team you ever played for," Lee's mentor and travel baseball coach Kenny Norman said. Lee, a 2010 Robinson High grad who just completed his freshman year at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, thought back to his time as a 7-year-old in the Interbay Little League system. His memory had been jogged recently by a photo his mother showed him. "I was like, 'Oh my God, are you serious?' " Lee said. "I guess it was destiny."In the photo, Lee, a lefty, wore an Astros uniform – the same team that selected him June 7 in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft. Roughly 24 hours later, Lee signed a minor-league contract with the club. After a few days with the Gulf Coast League Astros, a Houston Astros rookie league team, Lee will head to the Greeneville (Tenn.) Astros to play in their Class A Short Season, which begins Tuesday. A big reason Lee can grin is the influence of Kenny and Beth Norman. The couple played a formative role in Lee's life, opening their home to him nearly three years ago. They consider Chris their third son. "God blessed us for him to come into our lives," said Kenny Norman, who runs Team Xtreme Baseball, a Tampa-based travel baseball team. "He's just a happy kid. Always smiling and never frowning." He fits right in the middle, between the Norman's oldest son, Frankie, a USF student, and youngest son, Jordan. "For us, we just took him in and he fit in perfect," Beth Norman said. "And we just tried to put him in every situation to succeed and give him all the love he needs and support." Doing so has paid serious dividends. A testament to the deep connection Lee and the Normans share came to fruition a year ago when he was selected in the 37th round by the Chicago White Sox. As much as Lee, family and friends wanted to take that Sox pick and run, he received different advice from the Normans. They told him to go to forgo the money and go to college. "It was Chris' choice, but Chris is the type of kid who is going to listen," Kenny Norman said. "He believes in me. He trusts me and I told him he needed that additional year, especially at a JUCO." Why listen to that advice? Simple. At that point it was coming from people he considered family. "When I was about 10, my dad passed away, so I never really had a father figure," said Lee, who lost his father to cancer. "I had neighbors and important people (in my life). (Kenny) was a stranger to me, I never knew him, but after the first time I met him, he treated me so well. …I never had a father figure like that at that stage. He took me in under his wing, invited me to his house, let me spend the night, helped me out with tournaments. He was just great to me." Lee went on to Santa Fe College and played for Johnny Wiggs and Bruce Larkins, people Norman considers friends, who helped develop Lee's potential. This past season, Lee was 3-3 with one save and a 2.85 ERA. He also struck out 42 batters in 41 innings. Lee started six games, pitched six games in relief and played a key role in the Saints' program-best 37 wins ans third consecutive Mid-Florida Conference Championship. That very first meeting between Lee and Norman, a sixth-round pick by the Minnesota Twins in 1989, would have bruised the ego of some. Instead, Lee used it as a learning tool. Standing on the mound having thrown just a handful of pitches, Norman was impressed, but had some advice. "First day I got on the mound he pointed out five things I did wrong," Lee said. "I said, 'OK, he knows what he's doing. He's a good coach.'" Having implemented those critiques and grown stronger, Lee's top pitching speed has increased from 83 to 94 mph. When Lee was selected, he was inside the Normans' northwest Tampa home, watching the results on the computer. Ironically, he had just hit the mute button on the internet broadcast when Houston called. The moment brought Beth Norman to tears. "It was amazing," she said, her eyes welling. "He's so humble. … He couldn't stop cheesing. He was just looking at me like, 'Oh, my gosh.' I grabbed him and he probably thought I was out of my mind and we hugged. We hugged and went, 'We did it. We did it.' "Everybody thought we were crazy for counseling him that way last year, but we knew what he could do. We knew it and he made it happen."
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