Baseball pioneer Lee Man-soo has lived a life of firsts
Whether as a player, coach, manager or commentator, Lee Man-soo has been in the field of baseball for over 50 years.
After decades in the spotlight, Lee, one of the KBO's very first superstars, has spent the last few years giving back, sharing the sport that he loves in countries where its popularity is still growing.
Nicknamed Hulk for his power and home runs — he hit the first-ever homer in the KBO — Lee has been with the KBO since it was first founded back in 1982. To this day, he is considered one of the best catchers in KBO history.
Lee was the very first player in the KBO history to win the league’s triple crown in 1984. The triple crown refers to a player who has won the three major batting titles in a single season — batting average, RBIs and home runs.
During that season, Lee won the triple crown with 23 home runs, 80 RBIs and a 0.340 batting average. The KBO had a lot fewer games at the time — Lee appeared in 89 that year.
Not only that, he won the KBO’s MVP award in 1983 and received the Golden Glove Award every year from 1983 to 1987.
Lee was a one-club man, playing for the Samsung Lions for 16 seasons to retire in 1997 with a career 0.296 batting average with 252 home runs, 860 RBIs and 1,276 hits.
Following a successful career as professional player, Lee continued his baseball career as a coach. He headed to the United States as the hitting coach for the Class A Kinston Indians in 1998.
Only a year later, Lee was moved up to become the first base coach for the Chicago White Sox’s Triple-A affiliate team, the Charlotte Knights.
Then, after only another year, he joined the White Sox’s coaching staff from 2000 to 2006, becoming the very first Korean coach in the major league. As the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, Lee is also one of the few Korean baseball players to have a World Series ring.
Once he returned to Korea, Lee continued his coaching career by joining the SK Wyverns in 2007, and from 2011 he became the Wyverns’ manager.
When he finally stepped down as Wyverns’ manager in 2014, Lee's career suddenly left the beaten baseball coaching track, striking out into an entirely new area where no Korean baseball coach had ever gone before.
Lee headed for Laos.
A devout Christian, Lee felt that he had to start giving back the love he had received through his years in baseball. To do so, he headed to Laos, a country with absolutely no baseball infrastructure, to share his talent.
The Laos that Lee first arrived in not only had no baseball stadiums, it didn't even have enough players to put together a game.
After years of hard work, Lee turned Laos into a baseball-playing country, even debuting on the world stage at the 2018 Asian Games.
But Lee isn't done yet.
Now that Laos has a new favorite pastime, Lee has switched his focus to Vietnam.
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Lee to discuss his new life as a baseball pioneer. Below are edited excerpts.
Q. You had a hugely successful career in the KBO and then headed to Laos, where baseball is almost unheard of. What was behind that decision?
A. It’s been 50 years since I first started playing baseball. Over the 50 years, I have received so much love. Back when I was a player, I was used to receiving, not giving.
After I finished everything, when I stepped down as the SK Wyverns’ manager at the end of October in 2014, I had some regrets. I still had this ambition to want to try and do more, but my wife told me that since I'd been receiving all this time, it was time for me to start sharing.
Both my wife and I are devout Christians and she suggested that I go share my talent in Laos, a country I had always thought of. Without my wife’s help, this would probably have been impossible. I hesitated at first, but I just decided to give it a try without any regrets.
So I headed to Laos on Nov. 12, 2014.
Q. Did you originally want to go to Laos once you finished your career?
A. No, I hadn’t thought about it.
Back in 2013, I got a call from the man who is now head of the Laos [Baseball Federation]. At the time, I was in my second year as a manager. In November that year, he called and asked me to visit Laos to share my talent. Realistically, as the manager of a professional club, I had no time. Since I thought he would get hurt if I rejected it right away, I kindly declined by saying I’ll visit later “when I have time.”
He took that seriously and called me once or twice a week, so I ended up promising him that I’d visit once I stepped down as manager. I stepped down a year later in 2014. I had a promise to keep, and my wife knew I did, so I headed over there.
Q. Did you know that you were going to stay there and continue working in Laos for so long?
A. At first, I just told myself that I’ll probably be back after a month or so because I’m unfamiliar with the country. I felt like everything was unstable. But my wife told me not to think about the situation in Laos and just told me to think about sharing my talent.
Q. How did it feel when you actually got there?
A. After a week in Laos, I felt like I had to leave. The food didn’t suit me, I had difficulty with the language, they had a different culture and when I went, there were only 11 players. They didn’t have any baseball equipment at all.
But I stayed, and about 10 days later, the baseball students hugged me and called me teacher in Lao. When they hugged me, I just couldn’t leave those students behind. So that’s when I really changed my mind. As a Christian, I decided to keep my word.
Since then, I just kept going. It’s been seven years already.
Q. What was the very first thing you did to gather more players?
A. Since I had only played baseball, I didn’t really know about the administrative side. But as an instructor, I started to learn more. Since there were only 11 players in Laos, I started to think of ways to gather players and make baseball possible in Laos.
I realized that water and bread are scarce in Laos, and there aren’t that many students who can afford to eat all three meals a day, so I told the head of the program that we needed to put up posters at schools to gather players. I suggested that we write that all students who come to register will get water and bread.
By putting up posters at each school, I thought we’d get about 40 students, so I prepared water and bread for that many. On the day, 400 students showed up. We had to get more food, and because so many players turned up, we were able to hold a proper tryout. We tested their running and cut the group down to 40 students.
Those 40 students became Laos’ first-ever national baseball team.
Q. So you selected the first 40 players six years ago. Has the number gone up since?
A. We started with 11 players, went up to 40 and then to 150. But counting the players who have joined and left, we've trained about 250 players. After they graduated college, they left the team and we selected new players. That’s how we end up with 250.
Now there’s a baseball boom in Laos, but I and the coaches can’t go to the country because of Covid-19. So at the moment we're actually cutting down the numbers.
Q. You started the baseball program to help those students. Did their goal or mindset change after playing the sport?
A. When I first got there, I asked the students what their goal in life was. I was shocked by their response as they said their dream was to be able to eat three meals a day.
So I thought of ways to give them a new dream and started to question if I would be able to do that through baseball. But it was possible. After my first year, in 2016, I told the students that if they keep on working hard, then I would take them to Korea. At the time, none of those students had passports, so their dream was to go on a plane.
Finally, the opportunity came when we got a call from the Busan Foundation for International Cooperation to invite about 23 of our students for a three-night visit.
We extended the trip by giving the students the chance to stay with Korean families for a week, so in total they stayed for about 10 days.
Q. But you said they didn’t have passports. How did that process work, and what did they think of Korea?
A. Well, we paid for their passports and arrived in Korea for the first time in their lives. Rather than a suit, we got them matching shirts, kind of like a uniform. When they first arrived they were just shocked because to them, [Korea was] such a wealthy country.
Laos is a landlocked country, so they had never seen the ocean. When they went to Busan and we took them to the beach, they got so excited that they just jumped right into the water.
After our time in Busan and their time with the Korean families in Seoul, on the last day, we invited them for dinner. But they wouldn’t eat because they didn’t want to go back.
I had to persuade them by saying that they have to go back if they want to come back to Korea again. It was tough, but I eventually sent them back.
Q. After their trip to Korea, did their dreams change?
A. Yes. I learned that people can change. When I headed back to Laos and asked them about their dreams, it was no longer about eating three meals a day. One of them wanted to become a teacher while the others wanted to become doctors or politicians.
When I first got to Laos, there wasn’t even a proper hospital. So if I were to get injured, I would have had to go to Thailand.
At one point, I was a little sad because only two students wanted to become baseball players. So I was really happy that the students changed after only two years.
Q. Where does your coaching inspiration come from?
A. I read about this Venezuelan theory called El Sistema. It shows how young children can change through music. Using ideas from that, I thought if it’s possible to change people through music, then it should be possible to change them through baseball.
So my very first role model is, I'm embarrassed to say, El Sistema.
Q. What was the biggest challenge when you got to the country and started the sport?
A. In my first year, I was managing the team and teaching them everything. But the hardest part was feeding them and sending them to school. I was spending too much money. I had some money saved up from back when I was a professional player. But as I kept on spending money on them, I started to worry about my future career. That’s how I created my foundation.
Next was the administrative part. Another challenge was that we had to play on a football field. Since the field is rectangular, I wasn’t able to teach them proper defense.
Q. So what did you do?
A. Since Laos has a small population and a lot of land, I decided to get the property from the government. I put it in the request, but they wouldn’t have a meeting with me for two years.
After I donated a lot and continued teaching baseball, I finally got to meet with the government and prepared a whole presentation on why the country needed a baseball stadium. But they still wanted proper documentation. I came up with a 50-page document about my presentation with the help of my people at my foundation.
Q. You finally received the property, but it cost a lot of money and time to build a stadium. How did you get the financial support to build all that?
A. At first, they gave me 70,000 square meters [17.3 acres] of property, but I turned down the offer because it was too much. So I ended up getting 21,000 square meters.
It didn’t go as we planned because our financial plan got cut. Throughout the first year, nothing worked out.
But last year, the president of DGB Daegu Bank made a volunteer trip to Vietnam. After he finished his volunteering, he visiting Laos as he was nearby. When he visited, I asked him to invest. We ended up receiving some funds from that, although it was nowhere close to enough to build a baseball stadium.
We couldn’t get started right away because of the monsoon season, but finally, in January this year, we created a beautiful stadium.
Q. How did you keep the students motivated to continue playing baseball?
A. It first started by taking them to Korea. The next thing I said was that the team needed a proper baseball organization. If they didn’t have that, then it didn’t mean anything. I told them that the country needs a baseball association to compete in international tournaments like the Asiad. So I told them that I’ll establish the association.
At first, they doubted me, but on July 3, 2017, for the first time in Laos history, the country’s baseball association was established.
After that, I told them that I’ll take them to the 2018 Asian Games if they worked hard. The government said they didn’t have the money, so I just said I’d cover the financial expenses and asked the government to issue the document.
That’s how we got to compete. We lost all the games, but we made headlines around the world.
Q. You managed to lead the team to its first-ever international tournament. What were the challenges you faced?
A. Well, to motivate them even more, I told them that if they picked up a win, I would walk around the street in just my underwear.
We lost, but throughout the tournament, we had trouble with the rules. We normally had a net behind home plate, so when the catcher missed the ball, they didn’t run over to get it. So we would yell and tell them that they need to get the ball. Trying to make them understand what a sacrifice bunt is and other more complicated rules are still a bit of a challenge.
Q. There were a lot of challenges, but you got everything done with the motto “never ever give up.” What’s next on your agenda?
A. I would like to spend the next 20 years, which is roughly from when I'm 60 to 80, bringing baseball to five countries in Southeast Asia.
I’ve achieved almost everything I want to in Laos, and it has become the main country. Next, I would like to try to bring baseball to Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. Then, I want to host a tournament within those five countries.
After that, I want to host another tournament with countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, so that we can can [one day] have tournaments throughout Asia.
BY KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]