[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Lee Hyung-jong embraces change and challenges
Over the next few weeks, the Korea JoongAng Daily will meet with athletes from across the sporting world to discuss how they got their start and earned their fame as well as their lives on and off the field.
This week’s interview is with Lee Hyung-jong of the LG Twins.
Lee Hyung-jong has never been one to shy away from change.
When his pitching dreams weren’t realized, Lee decided to try his luck on the golf course.
But after some serious soul searching, he ended up back on the baseball field, but this time as a batter with the LG Twins.
“I don’t have that many regrets,” Lee said. “Because I got to learn something that the other baseball players didn’t have a chance to. I already know how it feels to be away from baseball, which you can only feel later in your career. My only regret is not starting my career as a batter earlier.”
His younger years
Having no knowledge of any schools that had baseball teams, Lee just played for his local team.
In the winter of the year he turned 9, Lee started to dream about becoming a professional player, and that’s when baseball started getting serious.
“That’s when I started playing baseball seriously, with the goal of becoming a professional baseball player,” Lee said.
Lee played as both a pitcher and a batter throughout middle school and high school and saw great success.
“Baseball just worked out so well,” Lee said. “I was a fearless teenager.”
In the 2007 high school baseball championship, Lee made headlines when he pitched for Seoul High School in two consecutive games. Lee threw 147 pitches during the semifinal game, leading his school to the final for the first time in 22 years.
“Just by looking at the number of pitches I threw in games, within a week, in six games, I threw about 700 pitches,” Lee said. “Since it was a tournament we had to win, and we didn’t have enough pitchers to throw, and I ended up being the best one [on the team,] I had to do it. Up until the semifinals, it was alright. But once I got to the final, my arm started hurting really bad, as well as my back.”
But his fearless teenage attitude may have been his downfall as he saw a significant lost in the speed of his pitches, and Lee’s school ultimately lost. He broke down on the mound.
“I was very competitive. I couldn’t accept myself losing in any way,” Lee said.
Despite the loss, his performance made an impression. Lee was drafted by the Twins, signing for 430 million won ($364,000) in 2008.
He began his time at the Twins with an elbow surgery and spent his first season rehabilitating.
Lee hoped to bounce back in his second season. Although the surgery on his elbow was considered a minor one, something had gone wrong in Lee’s case.
Despite a year of rehabilitation, his arm just kept on hurting and he ended up spending his second season confined to the dugout.
“It hurt,” Lee said. “But if I got a surgery again, then it meant another year or two [wasted]. I was afraid, so I just told the club that I’m alright and started throwing again.”
Despite the pain, Lee finally started pitching in 2010, his third season after joining the Twins.
He first started pitching for the Twins’ Futures League team and eventually got called up to the KBO and finally made his debut on May 16, 2010, against the Lotte Giants.
Giving up only two runs throughout five innings, Lee’s debut was a success as he also picked up his first-ever win at his first-ever start in the KBO.
“I was really happy,” Lee said. “I was just really happy that I finally got to throw on the mound at Jamsil Baseball Stadium, in front of a sellout crowd. My pitch speed reached 150 kilometers (93 miles) per hour, but starting in the fourth inning, it started to hurt really bad.”
But his elbow pain meant he had to postpone his rotation for a few days and instead make his second appearance against the Doosan Bears on May 23 that same year.
“I was in so much pain,” Lee said. “I think I knew that it would be my last game throwing.”
His instincts were right, and shortly after the game he made the announcement that he would be walking away from the sport that he’d been playing since childhood.
A new path
Lee spent his first two months of freedom relaxing with friends and working part time, but then reality kicked in and he started questioning his future.
The sports lover in Lee was inspired to try his hand at something new, and after reading an article on how K.J. Choi, the Korean golfer who picked up eight wins on the PGA Tour throughout his career, started golf in his 20s, he went to the driving range nearby and started hitting golf balls. After a few months of lessons from a local golf pro and practicing for hours every day, he was finally introduced to a golf academy in Suwon, Gyeonggi, where they had structured programs for professional golfers.
After months of training in Suwon, Lee went to Thailand for offseason training. His hard work paid off. He started shooting his rounds in the 70s within just months, and at times, he even shot rounds in under-pars. Seeing his rapid improvement, his coach suggested Lee try out for a semi-pro tournament.
Lee is probably the only player in the KBO who has experienced making debuts on three different stages. He says all three of his firsts made him feel different types of excitement, but his debut as a golfer made him the most nervous.
“I’ve never experienced that kind of a nerve,” Lee said. “It’s a different atmosphere. While people are screaming at a baseball stadium, on the golf course, everyone’s silent. I would say for my debut as a starting pitcher, I was young and I was nervous, but it was more of excitement. When I had my first hit [as a batter], I thought I was going crazy. I still can’t forget that moment.”
Lee played in his first tournament just six months after picking up a golf club for the first time. On the first day he shot a 74 when the cut line was 76, but on the second day his beginners luck ran out and he was knocked out.
Once the tournament ended, he continued practicing at the golf course, but thoughts of baseball began creeping back into his mind.
But he wasn’t reminiscing on his own memories of his time of the field - it was the other golfers on the range that were sparking the thoughts.
“There were a lot of people talking about baseball,” Lee said. “A lot of the professional female golfers liked baseball and talked about it. People walked up to me and asked about my career as a baseball player.”
At first, Lee shut off all the baseball talk because he only wanted to focus on golf, but after months of hearing people talk about his first love, he decided to give the game another try.
“In August, I told my pro [golf coach] that I wanted to quit,” Lee said.
Back to the ballpark
“Walking out was easy, but coming back wasn’t,” Lee said.
To re-start his baseball career, he got a second elbow surgery and showed his intention in wanting to return. However, it wasn’t an easy decision for the Twins, as accepting Lee meant accepting another player in their rehabilitation list.
Lee didn’t let this deter him, and until he was officially re-signed he trained by himself and worked part-time jobs.
Finally, he returned to the Twins as a pitcher in 2013. Despite his elbow issues, it was his shoulder that caused him pain.
“Once again, I didn’t say anything and kept on playing,” Lee said.
Lee kept on playing, but in September his shoulder was bothering him so much that he had to see a doctor. The doctor suggested a shoulder surgery, but Lee decided to rehabilitate and make it work.
In the fall of 2013, Lee asked the club if he could try out as a batter instead of a pitcher, but his suggestion was rejected.
“I was already 27,” Lee said. “So I thought it was about time for me to get cut. I was a player that was on the rehabilitation team all the time.”
Lee made a last-ditch attempt to save himself from being cut and once again made a plea to try out as a batter.
The Twins took a chance.
He used his experience as a newbie in the golf world and didn’t disappoint.
“I finally got to the Futures League toward the end of June or July,” Lee said. “I played better than I expected.”
His first year as a batter in the Futures League in 2015 turned out to be a successful one, and in the following season he was added onto the Twins’ spring training list. Lee finally felt like he’d found his place.
When he made his return to Jamsil as the Twins’ batter, he was wearing jersey No. 36, the number he used to wear back in high school. He says he chose this number because he had been a big fan of KBO’s legendary slugger Lee Seung-yuop, formerly of the Samsung Lions, since he was little.
In 2016, Lee made his debut as the Twins’ batter, and having played in 61 games, he finished with a 0.282 batting average. He went from strength to strength, and in his second season he played in a total of 128 games and reached 100 hits. It got even better in his third season in 2018, as he had his career-best season of a 0.316 batting average with 13 home runs and 138 hits throughout 118 games. In his fourth season, Lee saw his batting average drop, much like the majority of the players in the KBO following the introduction of a new ball, but still managed to hit 13 home runs, the same number as the year before throughout 120 games.
Now that Lee is preparing for his fifth season as the Twins’ batter, he is hoping for yet another great season and has revamped his image by chopping off his iconic long hair.
“It was actually quite uncomfortable,” Lee said. “My hat kept on falling off, and in the summer it was really hot.”
He aims to fully focus on the game and has spent two to three months of offseason clearing his thoughts by hiking, golfing and reviewing his notes.
“I take a lot of memos to remind myself,” Lee said. “I’ve noticed that I repeated my mistakes, and most of them are psychological.”
Hopes for the future
His biggest hope for the 2020 season is that his club can win the league. The Twins have not won the Korean Series title since 1994.
“I hope 2020 is the year that the Twins can finally win the title,” Lee said. “That is also our team’s goal - to just get better than we were last year.”
His personal goal is to play full-time from the start to the end of the season without any injuries and to get added to the lineup. “Once I do that, my statistics and results will come along.”
Lee is prepared to play the long game to reach these goals.
“If we can’t win this year, I want to win before I end my career,” Lee said. “If we can win more than once, that will be better. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be playing, but I want to become a FA [free agent] when I’m about 36. I just want to be remembered as a respected player. I’ve won in elementary, middle and high school, just not in the pros. So I have to win.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]