Lotte Giants bank on slugger to shrug off slumpAfter languishing at the bottom of the Korean professional baseball league, the Busan-based Lotte Giants have finally signed on a “giant” slugger ― 24-year-old Lee Dae-ho.
The team’s losing record is the longest in the 25-year history of Korean pro baseball.
While there were many reasons for the team's poor performance, one of them was the lack of a power hitter. At last, to the delight of Busan’s baseball fans, third baseman Mr. Lee is providing the team with some hope that their days in the wilderness are at an end.
Lotte’s “giant” towers at 1.93 meters (6 feet 4 inches) and weighs 120 kilograms (265 pounds), with a waist measurement of 101 centimeters (40 inches) and thigh girth of 86 centimeters (34 inches). Mr. Lee was interviewed in Masan earlier this month, where Lotte was playing three consecutive games against Samsung Lions.
His fellow teammates call him a combination of a tiger and a pig. Lee’s bat weighs 900 grams, which is one of the heavier bats generally used by foreign players. Up close, he looks much bigger than he does on the playing field.
Sitting beside him, Lotte Giants’ manager Yang Sang-moon (1.76 meters tall) looks like a middle school student.
Lee can bench press 150 kilograms during weight training, and last month he showed his real strength in a game against the LG Twins in Jamsil, southeastern Seoul. Lee had three second-base hits in the fifth, sixth and eighth innings with seven runs batted in.
With 36 runs batted in, he is currently the leader in the category and also has nine home runs, which also puts him in the first place. When it’s his turn at bat, the fans chant “Lee Dae-ho.”
Lee, however, is not yet at his best according to Yang. “Lee is not yet up to the level of a number four hitter. He has potential and we are training him for the long run,” he said.
Lee knows that too. “When I miss the ball, I get restless and it shows in my face. To become a real top hitter, I must have a poker face."
The young star is huge in size, but always wears a smile, and speaking in his engaging Busan dialect, he shows no signs of bitterness about his deprived childhood.
Lee's father passed away in an accident when he was three, and when his mother remarried, his grandmother took care of him while he was in high school.
Following her death, Lee and his brother, who is three years older than him, moved to his uncle’s house where he still lives.
“I only know my father from a photograph I have seen, and last talked to my mother three years ago,” he said.
He receives 70 million won ($70,000) in annual salary, almost double what he received in the past when he played for other teams.
“My brother manages all the money, and I receive an allowance from him,” Lee said.
“He has a girlfriend whom he has promised to marry, but says, ‘I will wait for my brother to get married first.’”
Lee has had a large physique since he was young, and when he was in his fourth year in Suyoung Elementary School, he started playing baseball.
In Daedong Middle School and then at Kyungnam High School, he wore the No. 4 shirt that he still wears today, but had no opportunity to play in high-profile games because of his team’s consistently poor performance.
However, he was selected for the World Junior Championship 2000 as a member of the national team. Lee had 15 hits in 30 at bats ―a whopping .500 batting average ― and contributed much to Korea’s win in the championship.
In 2001, Mr. Lee was drafted by Lotte as a pitcher, but in spring training camp, he suffered a shoulder injury and had to stop pitching and become a batter instead.
Mr. Yang was the manager then. “I pushed him a little too hard and he was injured. I felt guilty because I thought it was my fault, but he became a talented hitter instead and I feel that my burden is gone,” he said.
Mr. Lee trained with Lotte’s minor league team for three years and played in all games last year, hitting 20 homers.
He started on the major league team this year and has not looked back. Asked what kinds of goals he has set for himself, he answered, “I hope I can play in the fall as well,” meaning the playoffs.
Lee went on to say that he can see a placard in the stand that reads, “I want to watch baseball in the fall.”
His personal goal is to hit 20 homers with 80 runs batted in. In just a month he has already hit nine homers and recorded 36 runs batted in, and the goal is looking easily achievable.
“I am glad to play when there are a lot of fans,” Mr. Lee said. “I get better compensation than I did in the minor leagues and am happy with the appreciation from the fans. I hope to hit 400 home runs by the time I retire.”
by Chang Hye-soo