See also: Northwoods League Notes – August 2

Willmar, Minnesota might be the last place you would expect to find a 19-year-old from California spending their summer. A native of San Luis Obispo, Brooks Lee, like many other young people that live on or near the Pacific Coast, isn’t shy about sharing his desire to surf.

So while Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, you would have a difficult time finding a wave large enough to surf on in any of those 10,000+ bodies of water.

But Lee wasn’t in Minnesota looking to catch a wave. He was in the upper Midwest looking for baseball opportunities after missing almost the entire 2020 season. His summer development was already important, but when you consider the fact that he suffered a rare knee/hamstring injury in fall practice that caused him to miss all but two plate appearances during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, it placed an even greater emphasis on his need to get as many quality at-bats as he could find.

“I’ve always had a love for the game, so no matter what I’d be doing something baseball related this summer,” Lee said before a game in early August. “I just needed to get those freshman at-bats back and that’s why I’m out here. I just the love the game, I want to play regardless.”

Lee suited up for the Willmar Stingers and made the most of his time in Minnesota. He batted .345, hitting seven doubles and four home runs in 36 games.

There’s an aura of “California Cool” about Lee’s personality that makes it especially easy to have a conversation with him as he shared moments from his life in a very laid back yet matter-of-fact manner. That charisma also makes it easy to believe he has enjoyed the success he has to this point in his career with a seemingly care-free yet still-serious approach to both life and the game of baseball.

And while success didn’t come instantly for Lee during his athletic career, things really started to click for him during the summer of 2018 at the Area Code Games, one of the top annual scouting destinations as part of the grueling summer circuit leading up to a player’s senior year. At that event the ball was jumping off of his bat as he punished baseballs at Long Beach State’s cavernous Blair Field.

He previously was a well-known talent, but it wasn’t until his time spent in Long Beach that he was considered a true game-changing talent with early draft potential.

A strong spring season at San Luis Obispo High School continued to elevate his draft stock as more and more scouts, cross-checkers and scouting directors made seeing Lee a priority during the spring of 2019. While playing baseball at the highest level was, and still is, Lee’s ultimate dream – playing for his father Larry Lee at Cal Poly – was something he intended to be included in his journey.

As a result, Lee informed all 30 MLB teams that he fully intended to honor his college commitment. The San Francisco Giants, who had drafted two of his uncles (Terry and Mike Lee) over 40 years prior, used their 35th-round selection on Brooks Lee as a courtesy to him and his family.

Larry Lee has been at Cal Poly for almost as long as Brooks Lee has been alive, getting the job in 2002. His current head coaching position followed a 16-year stay at neighboring Cuesta College at the junior college level. He will enter his 19th year at Cal Poly once the 2021 season begins with a 546-430-2 career record, which includes three trips to the NCAA postseason.

“Ultimately I wanted to go to Cal Poly to play for my dad,” Brooks Lee said on his decision to go to college. “I just thought that he should get the benefit of me and for putting so much work into my baseball talents. He’s really the one that produced all that, I thought. I really didn’t have much coaching other than him. So I just wanted to give him what he deserved. Regardless of where he was coaching I’d go there.”

The connection to the community doesn’t stop with Brooks’ father and his two uncles, however, as Tom Lee, his grandfather, coached basketball, boxing and football, in addition to baseball, at Cal Poly and is a member of the Cal Poly Athletics Hall of Fame.

So it’s safe to say that the Lee family is kind of a big deal in San Luis Obispo.

“There’s been a rich history. Some call it the ‘Lee Dynasty,’ but there’s just a lot of history at Cal Poly,” Lee said of his family’s connection to the community. “My dad grew up in San Luis Obispo. My grandpa coached baseball, basketball, boxing and football at Cal Poly. Then everyone got taught swimming lessons by my mom and dad, so it’s kind of funny, there’s a lot of (family) background to it.”

Before arriving on campus Lee was already considered one of the top college freshman prospects and as a result was, and still is, expected to be an early pick for the 2022 MLB Draft. As difficult as that is to project almost three full years out, Lee took his talents to the West Coast League during the summer of 2019 as a college tune-up and proved he could more than hold his own playing with players already established in college.

As a member of the Corvallis Knights, the eventual league champion that summer, Lee hit .342 with 14 extra-base hits and 30 RBIs on his way to being named the league’s top prospect.

While Lee arrived at Cal Poly with a fair amount of fanfare it didn’t take long for potential tragedy to strike during fall ball. On what seemed like a routine groundout to second base, Lee hyper-extended his knee and snapped his LCL ligament. It was a rude halt to the development process for Lee who suddenly became a lot more aware of his own anatomy.

ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears are the most common form of knee ligament injuries. If you follow sports you probably have also heard of MCL (medial collateral ligament) tears and strains as well. Injuries to the two other ligaments in the knee, the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) and LCL (lateral collateral ligament), are much more rare.

“There’s only been 23 cases since 1970 of the knee injury I had,” Lee explained as he lifted up his baseball pants to show the surgical scar. “I had a complete knee reconstruction, it was pretty crazy. It’s most commonly found when you hyper-extend your leg with a ton of force and {causes] it to perfectly pop.”

As you may imagine, the rehab involved from such an injury is no easy task. But Lee was up for the challenge. He was up to the challenge so much he was able to return to the baseball diamond much earlier than expected, only 4 1/2 months after the injury occurred. That was enough time for him to record two pinch hitting appearances during the shortened 2020 season, striking out and hitting a two-run double in Cal Poly’s series against Baylor.

“Really hard rehab. I’m proud of that actually,” Lee said. “It’s (basically) unheard of so there were a lot of ‘what if’s?’ At the end of the day I’m back here so that’s what matters.”

Making up lost time was even more important to Lee considering he’s a switch-hitter. A more natural hitter from the left side, getting at-bats against quality left-handed pitchers to work on his right-handed swing is easier said than done.

The coronavirus made it even more difficult to find opportunities to play. The state of California was essentially shut down over the summer months. The Cape Cod League canceled their entire season and the same was true with several other prominent summer collegiate leagues scattered across the country.

That brought Brooks Lee to Minnesota.

The Northwoods League is the largest of the summer collegiate leagues, priding itself on modeling its experience after the minor leagues with extended travel, in a normal year, across six states and one Canadian province.

2020 of course was far from normal, but the Northwoods League carried on, placing the teams that chose to participate in regional pods. The Willmar Stingers were in a pod with three other teams from Minnesota and another from Iowa, creating a much smaller travel footprint when exposure is at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

“It’s a lot different than California, for sure,” Lee said of his Midwest experience. “I like it, but I’m a really big fan of the ocean because I’m a surfer. I miss that. I’ve been wake-surfing and wake-boarding, which is super fun.

“[In] rural Minnesota there’s no fences, everyone leaves their cars unlocked. It’s just completely different from what I’m used to.”

As for getting quality at-bats against quality left-handed pitchers, a smile came across Lee’s face when discussing the day’s opposing pitcher, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound southpaw.

And on this day Lee wasted no time making an impression as a right-handed hitter, ripping a hard-hit single back up the middle. In his next at-bat, again batting right-handed, he blasted a home run over the fence to deep left-center field. Later in the game, batting left-handed, he added a double as part of a 3-for-5, four RBI performance at the plate in a 14-4 win over the Rochester Honkers.

Lee recorded 148 at-bats during the summer of 2020 playing for the Willmar Stingers spanning 36 games. He also received valuable time defensively playing mostly second and third base for a team that went 22-20 and finished third in the regular season standings of the Minnesota-Iowa pod.

It may not make up for all of the lost time, but it’s a start, and more importantly, it’s done pursuing a lifelong passion.

“It’s baseball, that’s what I love,” Lee said. “Hopefully it’s something I can do for a long time.”

Lee has since caught a wave back to California, back in school at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo with at least two years, presumably, to be spent under the tutelage of his father before he’s draft eligible again in the summer of 2022. Whether or not he makes a return visit to the Midwest next summer, or beyond, remains to be seen, but it will always be remembered as a stepping stone of his baseball journey.