Lee Stevens hopes to rejuvenate his stagnant pro baseball career in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Stevens, a 1986 Lawrence High graduate, has signed a two-year deal with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japan Pacific League after spending all last summer toiling for Toronto's Triple-A farm club in Syracuse, N.Y.
"I really wanted to go. Nobody had to talk me into it," Stevens said by phone from Wichita where he lives during the off season. "For the first time in years I'm looking forward to the start of a season. I haven't felt this good since I started playing."
Stevens was a first-round draft choice of the California Angels less than a month after he graduated from LHS. In seven years with the Angels, the 6-4 first baseman-outfielder logged less than two years of major league service.
After hitting .225 with 14 home runs and 78 RBIs in 191 big-league games, Stevens was traded to the Montreal Expos last January.
However, late in spring training, the Expos released the 26-year-old left-handed hitter and he hooked on with the Blue Jays' top farm club where he hit just .259 with 14 home runs and 65 RBIs.
All the while, Kintetsu officials were scouting him.
"They've been watching me since probably 1990," Stevens said. "I had a chance to go last year, but I wasn't interested."
That so-so season at Syracuse and Kintetsu's offer of about $425,000 helped Stevens change his mind. In addition to the six-figure salary, the club will provide an apartment for Stevens, his wife, Kim, and their 2-year-old son, Matthew.
"One thing I was impressed with is they really take care of the family," Stevens said.
Actually, he signed a two-year deal, but 1995 is an option year. If he likes Japanese baseball and the Buffaloes decide to keep him, Stevens' pact will be worth close to $1 million.
"At this point in my career," he said, "it's time to make money and it doesn't matter where it's at. I'm ready to get away and have a new experience."
It'll be different, all right. Japanese teams, for instance, are notorious for conducting long practice sessions.
"I've talked to players who went over there and they didn't make it sound like boot camp," Stevens said. "It's all going to be positive. I don't think you can do too much."
Stevens will leave for Japan -- his team is based in Osaka -- in late January. The Japanese season runs through early October.
Two other Americans are on the Kintetsu roster -- outfielder Ralph Bryant, a former L.A. Dodgers farmhand, and Kyle Abbott, a pitcher obtained from the Philadelphia Phillies' system.