Lee’s hard work pays off with a pro deal
In the Korea Baseball Organization’s 2016 rookie draft (second edition), Lee was the overall 11th pick, chosen by the defending champions Samsung Lions.
“I’m happy I’ve finally seen the result after hard work in Korea,” the 23-year-old Lee said. “I want to be a player who can contribute to victory.”
In the rookie draft, Lee was among 100 players from 884 applicants who were offered a professional contract. Nam Tae-hyeok, the 24-year-old power hitter who previously played for the Los Angeles Dodgers minors, was the overall first pick by the KT Wiz.
Other players who failed to get a nod to Major League Baseball got a nod from the KBO clubs. Jung Su-min, the 25-year-old pitcher who was with the Chicago Cubs minors, was the eighth pick by the NC Dinos. Outfielders Na Kyung-min, who was with the San Diego Padres minors, was chosen by the Lotte Giants and Kim Dong-yup of the Chicago Cubs minors was picked by the SK Wyverns.
Just like Nam, Jung, Na and Kim, Lee has also returned from the United States to continue his baseball career. However, the difference between them is that this is the first time he has been offered a pro contract.
Lee, who was a fourth grader when he began playing baseball, wasn’t a natural pitcher. He played as a catcher until he was a senior at Pascack Valley High School in New Jersey.
“One day, I was just pitching for practice, and it clocked 147 kilometers per hour [91 miles per hour] on the speed gun,” he said. “A Minnesota Twins scout accidently saw my pitch and persuaded my coach to play me as a pitcher.”
After high school, Lee joined the University of Rhode Island baseball team but didn’t impress, as his average ERA went over 8.00 in three years. During his senior year, he transferred to Ramapo College in New Jersey and went 3-3 with a 4.50 ERA with the school, but this wasn’t enough for him to get a nod in the MLB rookie draft.
“In the United States, there are pitchers who can pitch fastball like me,” he said. “But thinking of my father, who has taken care of me to this day, I couldn’t give up baseball.”
While searching for a way to pursue his baseball career, Lee heard about the Goyang Wonders - Korea’s first independent baseball team not affiliated with the KBO - and moved to his father’s homeland last August.
“I packed up all my belongings with the thought that I would never return [home] until I have had success,” he said.
Less than a month after he arrived in Korea, however, the Wonders disbanded, though they helped players find a new club until November.
Although he wasn’t a Wonders member, Lee requested to train with the remaining players. He got a room near the baseball stadium in Goyang, Gyeonggi, and taught students at a hagwon (a private academy) for three hours a day to make a living.
“I was really disappointed [about the Wonders going defunct],” he said. “My mother told me to return home, but I told her I will be here at least a year, even if I have to work part-time jobs.”
During his “time-limited training” with the Wonders, Lee was given an opportunity to test with the NC Dinos and Hanwha Eagles. However, there was no other way for him to become a professional player other than going through the rookie draft.
Lee said he was disappointed again. After the Wonders’ support was gone, he trained alone and lived on cup noodles and packed lunches. His weight, once over 90 kilograms (198 pounds), even fell to 79 kilograms at one point.
From this year, Lee joined the Yeoncheon Miracle, another independent baseball club that was founded in March. He pitched there for about three months but has recently been training at Kyungsung University after a recommendation from former Lotte Giants player Chung Hak-soo, who is a distant relative of Lee.
Although his training ground has changed frequently, Lee’s fastball has gotten faster. He now throws about 152 kilometers per hour, which caught the eye of the Lions.
“Every team’s attention was on Kevin Lee, and I didn’t imagine we would have an opportunity to pick him,” said Lee Sung-keun of the Lions. “He is the player who can pitch a 150-kilometer-per-hour fastball easily. Although his game operation skills are in question, he can probably help the Lions next year if he prepares hard.”
Lee has been analyzing hitters in the KBO, hoping to meet them one day.
“In the KBO, there are many batters like Lee Yong-kyu, who is quick and has good contact abilities,” he said. “I want to pitch against Park Byung-ho and Eric Thames.”
Lee is looking for his Korean dream, just as his father, Lee Byong-ha, pursued his American dream. The senior Lee immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s, and after hard work, he now runs a construction company.
At the KBO draft on Monday, Lee Byong-ha watched his son wearing the Samsung Lions uniform.
“He is the kid who is focused and diligent. He goes to training the earliest and practices until late at night,” the senior Lee said. “I hope he becomes a great player after getting good lessons from coaching staff and senior players.”
Although he was born and raised in America, Lee said he is accustomed to Korean culture, thanks to his father, who raised him in a rigorous Korean style.
“My father always told me, ‘You have to be a man before playing baseball,’” Lee said. “I have no pressure to adjusting to Korean culture.”
BY KIM WON, JOO KYUNG-DON [firstname.lastname@example.org]