Kia Tigers outfielder invigorated after last season’s slump, pay cutKia Tigers outfielder Lee Jong-beom, 34, hopes to recover from last year’s slump. So far he’s off to a better start.
For the last 17 games (not including yesterday’s game), Lee’s batting average stands at .313 with 21 hits in 67 plate appearances, including one homer, eight walks and three stolen bases.
Although he is not on the top 20 hitters’ list now, he knocked out 11 hits in 24 at-bats in nine games along with four stolen bases in the pre-season. Observers said if the Tigers have a winning season, it would be because of Lee.
Last season, Lee batted .260 with 17 homers and 42 stolen bases. It was about average, but Lee ― named the “baseball genius” ― was not very proud of it. Because of his lackluster performance, Lee accepted a pay cut, from 480 million won ($473,840) to 430 million won.
But his average performance seems to have inspired him to work harder. During practice March 29 at Mudeung baseball stadium in Gwangju, South Jeolla province, Coach Jang Chae-geun implored Lee to put down his bat and call it a day. “Jesus, please stop and let’s go,” Coach Jang said. “Coach Koo Chun-suh is going to be exhausted.”
Lee, who has carved a Chinese letter that stands for patience in his bat, would not stop swinging.
Lee has been playing baseball for 27 years, starting in his third year at Seorim Elementary School in Gwangju. He was tired of playing soccer with his classmates and fell in love with baseball.
Lee told his father he wanted to play baseball, and knowing his son had no interest in studying, he consented.
When he was a senior at Gwangju Jeil High School, he led the school to the Cheongryonggi, a high school baseball championship, and the National Sports Competition.
After playing for Konkuk University, he was Korea’s baseball hope and a guarantee of sellout games. In 1994 while playing for the Haitai Tigers, he had 196 hits and a batting average of .393 with 84 stolen bases. This record remains unbroken.
People compared Lee to Japanese player Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. Asked to name a rival, he was reluctant to pick one for a while, he said, “Maybe Ryu Ji-hyun (former baseball player and LG Twins coach).”
Asked if he thought of Suzuki as a rival, Lee waved his hands. “Ichiro Suzuki is a genius,” Lee said. “He changed preconceptions of baseball. As an Asian, he rose to the top in the Major League where strength matters most. Suzuki has a different style from me. Rather than a rival, there are many things I can learn from him.”
Lee married the French-educated designer Jeong Jeong-min, 34, in 1997. The couple has a 7-year-old son, Jeong-hu, and a 6-year-old daughter, Ga-hyeon. Lee wanted to teach golf to his son, who already shows some of the sporting talent of his father, but his wife wants her son to study.
Instead, Jeong-hu hopes to play baseball in the future. The parents are trying dissuade him from playing baseball, but young Jeong-hu is persistent.
Jeong-hu placed a poster of Suzuki on the wall, with “258” scribbled on it. The number indicates the number of hits by Ichiro Suzuki at one point during last season (he finished with 262).
“My wife was telling him, ‘If you can do better than Ichiro, go ahead with baseball.’ Not better than Lee Jong-beom, but Ichiro,” Lee said.
Lee has faced three crises in his career. As a sophomore in high school, Lee was playing soccer and headed the ball when he collapsed from a concussion. Lee remained unconscious for 36 hours.
“I came back from death and was afraid of nothing,” Lee said. “Then, I almost bet my life on baseball.”
The second crisis came in Japan in 1998 when he was hit with a baseball and suffered a fractured elbow.
“I had worsening condition and was losing confidence in my ability to play baseball, and I didn’t see a way out,” Lee said. “I couldn’t return [to Korea]. When I was sent to the minor leagues, I cried in silence everyday.” Lee came to Korea to play for Kia Tigers in 2001.
The third crisis came last year when he finished the season with his worst record in Korea.
Among other skills. Lee learned how to play golf in Japan. When he was playing for the Junichi Dragons, his colleague Sun Dong-yuhl ― now coach of the Samsung Lions ― and golfer Ko Woo-soon accompanied him. Lee plays golf only between seasons and said he is a bogie player.
“Baseball is a generous sport compared to golf,” Lee said. “In baseball, batters are given another chance if they hit a foul ball, but if the ball goes out of bounds in golf, it is over.”
Lee plans to make two changes this year. Lee decided to discontinue wearing a helmet, which he had worn since his cheekbone was broken after he was hit with a ball in 2002. He also chose to slide head first, which he tried to avoid for the last few years because of his age.
“Playing for the Haitai Tigers, I practiced an additional three hours before the official practice began,” Lee said. “I clenched my teeth. I told younger players the story, but they didn’t understand it.”
Asked what his goal is for the season, Lee said, “I want to break my 1994 record.”
Coach Jang then started laughing. “Okay, you want a batting average of .400,” Jang said.
by Chang Hye-soo, Limb Jae-un