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Saturday, April 19 2014 @ 08:39 PM EDT

Astros' $100 million man a slugger who's a breed apart

Sports Section By JOSE DE JESUS ORTIZ Houston Chronicle - AGUADULCE, PANAMA — One-year-old Carlos Alejandro Lee plays on the living-room floor with Matchbox cars. His father fiddles with his cell phone a few feet away. His grandfather calls out from the patio. Taking a brief rest from a day of chasing cattle, the older Lees jokingly taunt each other in a familiar game of one-upmanship. The grandfather, Carlos Lee, a provincial all-star in Panama, boasts of being the best baseball player in the family. The father, Carlos Noriel Lee, the newest Astros slugger, simply wags his finger in disagreement. The six-year, $100 million major-league contract he recently signed is all the validation he needs. Lee, 30, drew his $100 million with a powerful swing that has averaged 98 runs driven in over his eight-year major-league career, providing promise that he will fortify the middle of the batting order behind fellow All-Star Lance Berkman. The Astros have had one of the most anemic offenses in baseball the past two years, but Lee should fill that void after hitting an average of 28 home runs per season during his time with the Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers.

The two older Lees already have earned their place in the pantheon of Panamanian baseball, and Carlos Noriel is poised to become the greatest major-leaguer the country has produced.

But baseball is only part of the legacy they wish to leave the boy playing on the floor. They also want to be the best breeders of Brahman cattle in Panama, perhaps even all of the Americas.

And it is in Texas where these aspirations intersect.

Long before Astros owner Drayton McLane signed Carlos Noriel to the richest contract in the franchise's history, Lee had made it known to several top Texas cattlemen that his preference was to land in Houston via free agency because of a ranch and a bull he owns in nearby Wharton County.

Latin American society places tremendous stock in the virtues of humility and hard work, so the 56-year-old patriarch beams at the reputation his son enjoys for both in their small town in the interior of Panama.

The older Lees break off their banter and head back to their ranches, their horses, their cattle, their work.

Carlos Alejandro plays with his cars.

Ranch in Wharton County

Home for Lee is this small sugar-cane town in the Panamanian province of Cocle, 86 miles from the capital, Panama City.

But the cradle of his dreams and ambitions as a cattleman is on a 1,000-acre ranch in the Wharton County town of Boling, about an hour southwest of Houston.

That's where you'll find 4-year-old Mr. V8 960/5, the 2006 Brahman Grand Champion at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, an animal that Lee co-owns with two other Texas ranchers.

Lee has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars laying the foundation for his herd, and countless hours researching the best bloodlines and breeding techniques available to produce the best Brahman, a breed best identified by the hump on its shoulders and known for its docile character.

The embryos and semen used at his Cristo Ranch in Panama, one of his nine ranches, are shipped from the Houston area. He has a laboratory on the property to house the microscopes, refrigeration equipment and medicine needed.

"This is what I do all day," he says as he rushes in his King Ranch F-350 truck to check on a calf born a few hours earlier.

Winning the grand championship at the Houston livestock show last year was a milestone.

"When I told Carlos 960/5 was the grand champion at the Houston livestock championship, he was very excited," said Jim Williams, co-owner of the V8 Ranch. "That's the International Brahman Show, the largest Brahman show in the world. It'd be like winning the Super Bowl or winning the World Series."

In the nearly three years since they met, Williams has seen how far Lee has come as a cattleman. "Carlos is not only a good baseball player, but he's also the most progressive breeder in Panama as far as importing top genetics," Williams said. "He probably knows the pedigree and bloodlines of his cattle like a sportscaster would know about statistics."

Although baseball has helped Lee build his businesses, McLane thinks Lee would have become a successful businessman in Panama regardless.

"He's one of the smartest and probably the most business-savvy baseball player I've ever spoken to," McLane says of Lee. "He is up there with Nolan Ryan as far as being a smart businessman."

Ryan is one of the top cattlemen in Texas. When informed of the comparison, Lee was humbled.

"Yeah, I'd like to meet Ryan one day," he said.

In the final stages of negotiations on his $100 million deal in November, McLane told Lee he wanted him to make some personal appearances. Lee agreed, on one condition — that he be allowed to skip two days of spring training to attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

"I think that in Houston Carlos has a lot of opportunities to expand his ranch in Panama," said his wife, Mary de Lee. "He's enchanted by the cattle business, and I think Houston is a great, great opportunity for him to expand his horizons."

Comparisons to Carew

Lee, partly of Chinese descent, makes it clear that he wants to be the best at whatever he does — whether it's baseball, cattle breeding, quarter-horse breeding or calf roping.

His father says the slugger wants to be remembered as Panama's best hitter, a distinction that currently belongs to Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who was born on a train in the city of Gatun, in what was then known as the Panama Canal Zone.

"If I tell you my son is the best hitter Panama has produced, well ... ," says the eldest Lee, a provincial all-star third baseman and center fielder for 13 years who now plays on a provincial all-star softball team of seniors. "He's starting to break some records. In some time, he'll be the best. "

Carlos Noriel, the first son and second of three children born to Carlos and Olga Lee, took early baseball notes at Aguadulce's Remon Candera Stadium where his father played. He took grounders at third base, the position he played on the provincial all-star team when he was scouted and signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1994.

"I was excited when I took him to the diamond," the eldest Lee said. "If he had a glove on, he was at ease. He showed interest right away. If you show interest and dedication, you'll get where you want."

Lee learned more than just baseball from his father. Being a provincial all-star in Panama garnered acclaim from neighbors and fans in this vibrant town of about 8,500.

The eldest Lee handled regional distinction with class. Baseball was a mere hobby, though. He paid the bills with a career as a manager in a communications company while his wife taught at the local school.

"He taught me the lessons that I'll teach my son," Carlos Noriel says. "He taught me that you have to teach your children responsibility and work ethic. I want my son to learn to work and know that you have to work because nothing is given to you. You must earn everything."

Calf roping off-limits

Baseball and breeding Brahmans may be highest on Lee's list of activities, but they're not the only things he does.

He has about 14,000 cattle, about 10,000 of them heifers or cows, and 15,000 acres total for his nine ranches. He owns eight 18-wheelers for his beer-distribution center.

He breeds quarter horses at Hacienda Lee, where all of the studs were imported from the U.S. Until recently, he was a competitive calf-roper.

Calf roping was deemed too risky for a man with a $100 million price on the power derived from his sturdy, 6-foot-2 frame.

"He fell off his horse and was almost hurt," the eldest Lee said. "I told him not to rope anymore. I told him his time for that was later. I told him his time now is for baseball."

The slugger didn't argue. For now, he will settle for sponsoring a calf-roping team.

As it is, Lee's off-season schedule is full. He usually awakens about 5:30 a.m. and heads to work out by 5:45.

Because they have enrolled their daughter, Karla Mary, in a top school in Panama City a three-hour drive away, Mary Lee spends the school week in Panama City. Lee spends most of the week in Aguadulce, which is within the 20-mile radius of the cattle ranches.

In between rounds, he stops by his modest home to eat meals prepared by a personal chef.

"Tell Mr. McLane I'm working on my diet," he says with a smile.

He knows some critics claim he'll grow out of his left field job and land as an American League designated hitter by the end of this contract. Phil Garner says team doctors told the Astros that despite a robust appearance Lee's mass isn't made up of excess body fat.

If Lee gets out of shape, it's not likely to be because of sedentary ways. He is constantly on the move.

Humility first

Ask a waitress or cab driver in Panama City about Lee. Ask a ranch hand or a fan at a baseball game in Aguadulce. Nobody mentions Lee's home runs first. Nor his $100 million.

The first trait his countrymen mention is humility, a quality that some say has caused him to surpass World Series ring collector Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees as the most beloved major-leaguer in their country.

Some Panamanians view Rivera with disdain for what they consider aloofness.

Conversely, Lee is seen as willing to stay in his country and work toward making it better and richer. At times, they even compare Lee favorably with boxing great Roberto Duran, the jovial prince of Panamanian athletes.

He keeps a gun in his truck in Panama, but he doesn't travel with bodyguards. He doesn't shy away from the public. He's around his neighbors so much, they hardly bother him.

"There's not much traffic, no fuss," he says. "I'm where I love to be — in my ranches with my cattle, my horses and my people."

"It's the city where I grew up. I would never move from Aguadulce. You have to be at the place where you feel happiest."

His happiness helps drive the local economy, too. At last count, he had 58 employees spread out throughout the province of Cocle. His father manages all the operations. And Nadia Mejia, 26, a childhood friend who studied agribusiness in Panama, is the forewoman of the cattle ranches.

Alquilino Villareal, the 1990 Panamanian calf roping champion, is the foreman in charge of the quarter horse-breeding operation at Hacienda Lee. Away from work, Lee usually gets his space to relax.

He is not afraid to slip into the crowd.

While watching a youth baseball game recently in his hometown, he is given his space. He is asked to sign only about a dozen baseballs during the five innings he attends. Several children stop by to say hello, and he obliges them with a smile or embrace while their parents shoot pictures of him with cell phones.

A few days later, he doesn't let fatigue diminish his willingness to mingle at the Feria de San Sebastian, a provincial livestock show where he is presenting 12 Brahman that were born and bred at his ranch. Two days before the judging, Lee and six employees went to work early. Wearing boots, jeans and a black T-shirt with a Michael Jordan logo, Lee helped cut the show animals from the herd so they could be washed and loaded.

Once ready, Lee drove the animals and four days' worth of feed toward the show an hour away, where there was a bit of a buzz as he rolled into the fair.

The cattle's rumps are sullied after they're unloaded, so they must be washed yet again. After they're rewashed and fed, Lee finally gets to eat dinner with his crew as the festival starts picking up in the evening.

Traditional folk dancers set up at opposite sides of the fairgrounds and in the stage in front of the show ring. The teenagers and young adults hover near the food stands, where a DJ is playing the latest hits.

Carlos Alejandro, who'll turn 2 in March, rode on his father's shoulders. Lee even agreed, at his son's urging, to squeeze into a tiny train for a ride around the fairgrounds.

While in line, several fans stopped by for autographs and picture requests.

"Él es Carlos Lee," they'd whisper to each other in Spanish. "He is Carlos Lee."

jesus.ortiz@chron.com

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