All-stars gear up for weekend festivities in Suwon

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All-stars gear up for weekend festivities in Suwon

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Park Jung-jin, Lee Ho-joon, Son Min-han, Lee Seung-yuop, Lim Chang-yong

Some older baseball fans might be surprised to see NC Dinos pitcher Son Min-han among the 48 players who will don uniforms for this year’s Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) All-Star Game.

When the stars trot out onto the field on Saturday at Suwon KT Wiz Park, Son will be there at age 40 years 6 months 16 days, the oldest pitcher ever to appear on the All-Star Game roster. The 2005 league MVP takes the geriatric hurler record formerly held by LG Twins pitcher Kim Yong-soo, who was 40 years 2 months 21 days when he appeared in the 2000 All-Star Game.

This is Son’s first All-Star nomination since 2008; he was selected this year by a manager’s recommendation. The right-hander is having his best season since being released from the Lotte Giants in 2012; he is now 8-4 with a 3.80 ERA in 13 games.

Son is not the only demonstration of veteran power at this year’s game. Although he is the oldest athlete on the two squads, four players are just one year shy of his age: Lee Seung-yuop, Lim Chang-yong, Lee Ho-joon and Park Jung-jin.

The selection of Samsung Lions designated hitter Lee Seung-yuop wasn’t surprising. The left-handed slugger, on the Dream All-Star team, earned the most All-Star fan votes, 1.53 million, in league history.

Although his performance so far this year hasn’t matched that of some of his previous campaigns, Lee Seung-yuop will be playing in his ninth All-Star Game, coming in with a .318 batting average, 15 home runs and 56 RBIs in 81 games as of Wednesday.

“There is no secret to my performance except to enjoy, work hard and challenge the baseball,” said Lee Seung-yuop, a five-time MVP.

He said earlier that notching his 400th home run in the KBO League last month was probably what led to his perch atop the All-Star vote. “It’s all right even if players in their 20s call me ‘grandpa’ because I’m still happy to get the fans’ support,” he said.

Lee Seung-yuop’s teammate, Lim, got the most votes for the closer’s role on the Dream All-Star team. After a stint in Japan with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows from 2008 to 2012, and in the United States with the Chicago Cubs in 2013, he returned to the Lions last year. He had 31 saves, second most in the league, to help the Lions take the championship. But his record was marred by his nine blown saves, and despite his three save titles in the league, he has been focusing this year on reducing that number of bad outings.

Through Wednesday, he sports a 3-2 record, a 3.07 ERA and 16 saves in 28 games. Notably, he has blown only three save opportunities so far.

“After Oh Seung-hwan left to play in Japan, there is no closer here like Lim,” said Lions manager Ryu Joong-il, the Dream All-Star skipper. “I still believe in him.”

The Dinos’ Lee Ho-joon is the top vote earner at the Nanum All-Star team’s designated hitter position. His career hasn’t been dominating like Lee Seung-yuop’s; he has never won the home run title and only twice (2007 and 2012) has the Gwangju native hit .300. But since his rookie year in 1994 with the Haitai Tigers, he has delighted fans with his clutch-hitting feats. The right-handed batter has also tended to shine in the last year of his contracts, and this year is no exception. As of Wednesday, Lee is batting .311 with 16 home runs and 79 RBIs in 78 games.

The selection of Hanwha Eagles pitcher Park Jung-jin was somewhat of a surprise. The southpaw topped the vote for the Nanum All Star team’s relief pitcher, a new voting category this year.

“I think Park has really became a pro,” said Eagles manager Kim Sung-keun. “His durability wasn’t that good, but he worked hard and it started to change.”

Since making his KBO debut with the Eagles in 1999, Park’s best stretch was from 2010 to 2012, when he went 13-14 with 20 saves and 34 holds. But he is having his best season ever this year, with five wins, only one loss, a 3.09 ERA and 13 holds in 54 games.

After 16 years as a pro, Park is now playing his first All-Star Game, one of 17 All-Star rookies who will be on the field on Saturday.

“Every day I feel happy,” Park said. “I don’t think about my age, and I think I will keep doing better.”

The performance of these old players might be exciting (or comforting) news for some fans, but there is also some concern that younger potential stars are not getting the attention and exposure they deserve. “Grandpa” Lee Seung-yuop said, “I think that young players should play in the All-Star Game more often to gain experience and grow more.”

But until those young stars wrest control of the game from the veterans, the grizzled oldsters are not about to bow out without a fight.

“If there is a young player who can replace me, I will quit without regret,” said Lee Ho-joon. “But if I can keep up my performance, I want to play for as long as I can.”

BY KIM SIK, JOO KYUNG-DON [joo.kyungdon@joongang.co.kr]
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