“Heroes are my pride… Aiming to be above average in the big leagues”

October 29, 2023 | by

“The fans were always behind me, and that gave me a lot of strength. I tried to be the pride of the fans and did my best on the field. Wherever I go, I will do my best with the pride of being from the Heroes.”

The Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul was more crowded than usual on April 10, the day of the KBO game between the Kiwoom Heroes and Samsung Lions. 11,757 people showed up for the weekday evening matchup, which was far from a championship or top-five fight. After the game ended in favor of Kiwoom, one player took the microphone. It was Lee Jung-hoo, who pinch-hit in the eighth inning and grounded out to third base.

Lee Jung-hoo has called it quits after seven years in the KBO. The son of legend Lee Jong-beom, he entered the professional ranks in the spotlight and grew up to become one of Korea’s top hitters, eventually making it to the major leagues.

It was a foregone conclusion. He didn’t have much further to go in Korea. In his debut season in 2017, he shocked the league with a .324 batting average and 179 hits. After a jinx-free sophomore year, he surpassed 100 RBI for the first time in 2020. Last season, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP).

He has also continued to prove his ‘international’ credentials. From the 2017 Asian Professional Baseball Championship (APBC), where he earned his first adult tattoo, to the Asian Games and Premier 12, to the Olympics and World Baseball Classic (WBC). As the national team’s center fielder, he has held his own against some of the world’s best players.

The first time he drew a picture of himself abroad was two years ago. “I never dreamed of going overseas until I was in high school,” Lee said in a phone interview with Kookmin Ilbo on Nov. 20, adding that he enjoyed playing baseball with his friends when he was younger.

When he got to high school, he “grew up” seeing his seniors torn between the pros and college. Once he realized how high the barriers were, he became serious about pursuing his dream of playing professionally. A big leaguer was a far cry from that reality.

It was the Tokyo Olympics that changed my mind. In my previous international tournaments, I was just enjoying the new experience, but in Tokyo, facing a much stronger opponent, I became more competitive and confident. I realized, ‘I want to hit balls like this every game on a bigger stage.

From there, it was solid. He hit career-highs last season, winning five batting titles (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and RBI). The team made it to the Korean Series. After the 2023 season, he expressed his desire to join the big leagues through the posting system (closed competitive bidding), and Kiwoom was happy to oblige.

This year, however, he hit a bump in the road. He was in a hitting slump for the first month of the season. His monthly batting average was 0.218, the lowest since his debut. The team dropped to eighth place. The problem was more mental than technical. “I had to focus on what I could do, but I couldn’t do that,” Lee said, “and I felt like the team was falling apart because of me.”

To make matters worse, the summer brought an unexpected injury. On July 22, just as he was coming out of a slump and hitting his stride, Lee was substituted for a game against the Lotte Giants with ankle pain while fielding. A medical examination revealed that the extensor ligament, the membrane that wraps around the tendon, was damaged, and he went straight to the operating table. Not only was he sidelined for the season, but he also returned his Asian Games flag.

When asked if the heightened interest from major league clubs ahead of his overseas expansion might have led to impatience, Lee shook his head firmly. “I don’t think they want to take me just for one year,” he said, adding, “I just thought I should do what I was doing (before the season).”

“It was a good experience,” Lee said of the season’s setbacks. “At first, I felt resentful, like, ‘Why is this happening to me,’ but I kept my mind positive. The first slump he experienced as a pro and the process of rebounding from it helped him grow. Her natural tendency to think about what she needs to do in the future rather than looking back at the past also played a role.

In addition, the presence of her parents, teammates, teammates, and coaching staff was a great support. Not to mention the support of the fans. “They always believed in me and encouraged me, so I felt compelled to repay them as soon as possible,” Lee said.

His family gave him their full support for choosing a challenge over a guaranteed path. His father, LG Twins coach Lee Jong-beom, who also tried his hand at the Japanese stage as a player, told him to “be strong. “He told me that life before baseball would be very difficult,” Lee explains, “and that I shouldn’t go to places without friends or family.”

A former teammate also offered words of support. Kim Hae-sung, who grew up in the same Kiwoom as Lee and made it to the big leagues first through a post, called Lee “a near-complete hitter” when he returned home through Incheon Airport on the 11th. When asked if he had any advice for the youngster, he praised him as an outstanding junior.

“Compared to the big league players there, I’m sure I’m not good enough,” Lee said, adding, “I’ll just have to try and improve myself.” However, he did not hide his ambitions. “I don’t want to remain an average player in that league. I want to be more than that,” he said, emphasizing that “I’m still a long way off, but I’m young and I believe I can improve.”

If he does make it, his top priority is to secure a starting spot. “It’s a big challenge to be a starter in the big leagues, so I’ll think about it later,” he said. As for the pitcher he would like to face, he chose Ryu Hyun-jin.

After seven years in the KBO, he said he did his best in every moment and expressed his affection for Kiwoom. “If it wasn’t for my team, I wouldn’t have been able to grow like this,” he emphasized. He said he has no regrets, but his only regret is that he never won a championship with Kiwoom. That’s why he cites last year’s postseason as a particularly memorable moment. As a rookie in his first professional season, 2019 was a special time for him as they reached another Korean Series.

He repeatedly bowed his head in gratitude to the fans. “The fans were the biggest reason why I wanted to come back from my injury (before the season ended),” he said, “I didn’t want to see my last game with a limp on the field, so I worked harder on my rehabilitation.”

When I asked Lee what his time at Kiwoom meant to him, he said, “It was my early to mid-20s and a time I will never forget until I die. “I think I spent my youth well because I joined a really good club. I did my best and felt proud. I think I met some good people and had a good time.” 스포츠토토


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