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3 stars play as well as foreign aces

Apr 27,2017
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[JOONGANG PHOTO]
Over the years, foreign players have been dominating the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), but now a few Korean players are impressing fans by competing at the same level.

As an amateur pitcher, Lee Hyung-jong of the LG Twins allowed Lee Chul-woo, now of the KT Wiz, a run in the bottom of the ninth during the Korean national high school championship. He then started to break down, allowing an additional run and losing the championship game.

After a loss in the championship game in high school, Lee never had a day where he felt comfortable. His excessive passion eventually led him to failure, but he continued to try to overcome his challenges.

As a pitcher, Lee was given a prestigious opportunity in 2008, signing his contract with the Twins for 430 million won ($383,207), although his career as a pitcher didn’t last very long due to an elbow injury.

Lee won his first game as a starting pitcher in 2010, but his injury reoccurred. In the process of recovery, Lee was involved in a case of insubordination towards the coaching staff through social media.

Eventually, Lee announced his retirement and he tried to become a professional golfer, leading him to another failure. In 2013, Lee returned to the KBO, joining the Twins once again, this time as a hitter rather than a pitcher.

As a batter, Lee hit his first home run against the Samsung Lions on May 11, 2016. But the next day, Yang Sang-moon, manager of the Twins, relegated him to the futures league and promoted Lim Hoon in his place.

Within a year, Lee exceeded expectations and returned to the Twins at the center of the batting lineup.

“Lee is showing great batting strength since he changed position from pitcher to batter,” said Lee Soon-chul, SBS sports commentator. “He made a great swing, utilizing his single leg form from his amateur career, in a short period of time.”

There are some fans who still remember Lee as a pither, but he is now the Twins’ leading batter, and his statistics shows his strength, recording a 0.389 batting average, including three home runs in 20 games as of Tuesday.

“When I became a hitter, I started with nothing,” Lee said. “So I was more desperate than others. Even now, every opportunity given to me at bat is very valuable to me.”

Kim Dong-yub, the fourth hitter for the SK Wyverns, had more failures than success throughout his baseball career. In 2009, he signed with the Chicago Cubs but he never even got to play in the minor league double A.

He concluded his baseball journey in the States, returned to Korea in 2013 and had to undergo shoulder surgery. Kim then went to the military and made his KBO debut in 2015, seven years later than other players of his age.

Even during the rookie draft, he was the 84th pick by the Wyverns. While no other teams paid any attention to him, Trey Hillman, the Wyverns’ manager, recognized his skill and he is now their fourth hitter with a 0.250 batting average, including six home runs in the first 20 games of the season.

Just like Kim Dong-yub, Kim Jae-yoon of the Wiz started his career in the United States, signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, but got kicked off the team in 2012, never getting a chance to be in the major league. Upon completion of his military duty, Kim joined the Wiz in 2015 and successfully changed from being a catcher to being a pitcher. In eight games, Kim had seven saves, leading the KBO in saves.

Lee Seung-yuop of the Samsung Lions, who used to be a pitcher, is now considered Korea’s top hitter. Oh Seung-hwan of the St. Louis Cardinals and Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers both went through multiple surgeries but have successfully made their names known in the major league.

Eric Thames of the Milwaukee Brewers, who got kicked out of the major league, is making a splendid return to the MLB. They’ve waited, worked harder than anyone and are finally reaping the rewards. In a society where, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second acts, any players who bounce back are an inspiration to all.

BY KIM SEEK [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]