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Veterans take the lead in KBO

Baseball’s aging stars outshine the youth as season heats up
May 23,2018
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From left: Lim Chang Yong of the Kia Tigers, 41; Jeong Seong-hoon of the Kia Tigers, 37; Park Han-yi of the Samsung Lions, 39. [ILGAN SPORTS]
A few grey hairs never hurt anyone.

This season, veterans are turning out to be the shining stars of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). In the beginning of the season, rookies got off to an outstanding start. However, veterans aren’t losing many spots on KBO lineups, and are now outperforming newer players.

On May 15, the Kia Tigers defeated the Nexen Heroes 2-1 on May 15 at Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul thanks to closer Lim Chang-yong, 41, and infielder Jeong Seong-hoon, 37. While the two teams were tied up at 1-1, Jeong entered the batters’ box as a designated hitter at the top of the ninth inning and brought in an RBI to lead the Tigers to victory. Lim then got on the mound and threw for a scoreless inning to pick up his second save of the season.

Kim Se-hyun, the Tigers’ closer, was dropped down to the futures league, so Lim has been covering the closing role. Lim didn’t disappoint his team and its fans. During the Tigers’ game against the Samsung Lions, Lim successfully maintained the team’s one-run lead at the bottom of ninth to pick up his first save of the season. The game allowed Lim, who is one month away from turning 42, to become the oldest pitcher in KBO history to record a save. Two days later, he picked up another save against the Heroes.

“I’ll try to continue my save record,” said Lim.

Tigers’ manager Kim Ki-tae said, “Lim Chang-yong will be our closer for a while.”

Though Lim is not able to throw a fastball at 160 kilometers (99 miles) per hour, which he used to do when he was younger, his speed hasn’t dropped off too much - his pitches can still reach 150 kilometers per hour.

“I’m confident in my ball speed,” Lim said.

As of Tuesday’s game, Lim has an ERA of 2.12 with three saves and four holds.

Jeong, who was released by the LG Twins, re-joined his former team, the Tigers, this season. After the 2017 season, the Twins released the majority of its older players to encourage a generational shift under manager Ryu Joong-il. Jeong had no choice but to sign a contract with the Tigers for 100 million won ($93,068), less than a third of his previous salary.

Jeong said, “I’m thankful to the Kia Tigers for giving me this opportunity. I’ll try my best to fulfill the role that’s given to me.”

Jeong has become a crucial backup player in the Tigers’ lineup. He has a 0.359 batting average with two home runs and 10 RBIs. When Lee Bum-ho was out for an injury, Jeong successfully covered for Lee at third base, and eventually set the KBO record for most career games.

Like Lim, Jeong tops his own record regularly.

“Baseball is fun these days,” Jeong said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been on third base, and it’s really fun.”

Throughout the 2017 season, Jeong’s playing time decreased significantly as the Twins’ generational shift continued. Jeong mostly played as a substitute last season.

“It was hard at first,” Jeong said. “[In the beginning], I started walking around with a bat right from the first inning. But this season, thanks to my experience [as a designated hitter last year], I don’t have much of a problem playing as a designated hitter.”

Park Han-yi, 39, has helped keep the Samsung Lions from taking the last spot in the standings this season. After Lee Seung-yuop retired after the 2017 season, Park is now the oldest player on the team. Park, who made his KBO debut in 2001, got off to a slow start this season after suffering from a knee injury. Due to the injury, Park was excluded from the starting lineup after the first 10 games. Once he got back on the field in May, he is back to full strength, and has a 0.385 batting average with two home runs and 12 RBIs in May.

“I don’t have much time left in my baseball career,” said Park. “I don’t want to be an embarrassing player.”

The Heroes are missing the majority of its key players, but Lee Taek-keun, 37, has been a crucial force on the Heroes’ batting lineup. At the beginning of the season, Lee wasn’t included in the starting lineup for the team’s first game, as he injured his knee during offseason training. However, once he got back on the lineup on April 14, Lee’s started hitting well.

As of Tuesday’s game, Lee has a batting average of 0.305 with two home run and 20 RBIs.

“Lee Taek-keun doesn’t tell us even when he’s injured, because he feels a strong responsibility,” said Jang Jung-seok, the manager of the Heroes. “The coaching staff ask the trainer first to check on his condition.”

Baseball players are playing for longer thanks to a more structured training system and bigger contracts.

“In the beginning of the professional league, not many players were willing to continue their career after their 30s,” said Heo Goo-yeon, a commentator for MBC Sports Plus. “As the baseball industry got better, the income of the players went up as well. Due to this, players have to take better care of their body to extend their career, which also allowed the KBO to have more veteran players.”

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]