A Great Hitter's Madison Beginnings

D. J. Le Mahieu a star with the Colorado Rockies

The best hitter in Major League Baseball was in Wisconsin for the start of the season last week.

D. J. LeMahieu hit .348 for the Colorado Rockies last year—the highest batting average in baseball since 2010—and the Rockies opened the 2017 season with a series against the Brewers in Milwaukee.

I doubt LeMahieu had time to make it down I-94 to Madison, but if he had, the trip would have stirred memories, starting with the approach to the central city on John Nolen Drive, with its great view of the Monona Terrace Convention Center.

D. J.’s mom, Joan LeMahieu, was the first director of Monona Terrace, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired facility that opened in 1997.

The LeMahieus stayed in Madison for five years, moving to the Detroit area when Joan became general manager of Ford Field. Joan probably got more famous than she wanted to be early on in Madison when public radio host Michael Feldman’s “Whad’ya Know?” quiz show was broadcast from Monona Terrace. Feldman ignited a feud over his wish to provide free doughnuts to his studio audience after the Monona Terrace insisted all food be provided by its catering service. Feldman rode the controversy like a racehorse. (They ended up striking a compromise: Feldman got his doughnuts in exchange for on-air plugs for Monona Terrace.)

When 8-year-old D. J.’s family moved to Madison, he was already a baseball nut. He quickly became a standout player in the East Madison Little League. His mother once told me that the family realized he had a gift for hand-eye coordination when D. J. was just two. She’d taken him to a mall and watched in astonishment as the little boy sank shot after shot at a miniature basketball display.

Joan’s husband and D. J.’s dad, Tom, once recalled for me a story of a trip to Reedsburg he and his son made for a baseball tournament. D. J. was 9 then, and playing for the East Madison Little League All-Stars.

On the drive, Tom said, “This is a huge game for you today.”

“Dad,” D. J. said, “I’ll play in bigger games than this.”

He wasn’t wrong.

D. J. first hit my radar in 2009 when he was playing for LSU—Louisiana State University—in the finals of the College World Series against the University of Texas. Out of high school in Detroit, D. J. was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, but opted instead to go to college.

The College World Series is held in Omaha, and LeMahieu was brilliant in the opener, tying the game with a two-run double in the ninth inning and then scoring the winning run two innings later. LSU claimed the title by beating Texas twice in the best of three series.

Tom and Joan attended the series—she was managing the Mountain Winery south of San Francisco by then. Tom told me being drafted by the Chicago Cubs—the pro draft was held just prior to the College World Series—was a dream come true for D. J., who saw his first game in Wrigley Field, with his dad, when he was five.

D. J. never got a chance to prove himself with the Cubs. He got 15 hits at 60 at bats and spent time in their farm system before a new Cubs general manager, the celebrated Theo Epstein, traded LeMahieu to the Rockies in 2011. It was a rare misfire for Epstein, who told the New York Times this past February, “He’s certainly proving us wrong.”

Of course, it’s worked out fine for D. J. LeMahieu. His batting title last year is all the evidence one needs.

And Madison can lay its small claim as the place where the boy really came to love the game. “He always had a bat in his hand,” his dad said. 

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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