(ATTN: ADDS comments from retirement ceremony in paras 8-11)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 8 (Yonhap) — Lee Dae-ho, one of the most feared hitters ever in South Korean baseball, played his final game Saturday before adoring fans in his hometown, having choreographed the greatest last dance in league history.
The 40-year-old wrapped up his 22-year professional career as a member of the Lotte Giants, his hometown club in Busan and the only Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) team he played for. His No. 10 was retired by the club as part of his farewell ceremony. The entire Giants team wore No. 10 jerseys to honor Lee as they defeated the LG Twins 3-2.
Sajik Baseball Stadium in the southeastern city had its third sellout of the season, with 22,990 fans packing the iconic ballpark to get one last glimpse of their hometown hero.
At a press conference before the game, Lee said he carried a mixed bag of emotions into his final game.
“I am nervous and excited, and I also have some regrets,” Lee said. “I didn’t think this day would come so fast. I just want to be able to leave with a smile on my face.”
Lee went 1-for-4 with an RBI at the plate. Lee, who was drafted as a pitcher in 2000 before converting to an infielder, made his first and last professional appearance as a pitcher in Saturday’s game.
He took the mound in the top of the eighth inning and retired Go Woo-suk, the Twins closer who made a cameo at the plate, on a comebacker to the mound.
In the retirement ceremony after the game, Lee bid one final, teary goodbye to Giants faithful.
“From the dugout, there’s nothing as spectacular as watching the stands at Sajik. And nothing was as exciting as the sound of Busan baseball fans’ cheering when I stood in the batter’s box,” Lee said. “I was the happiest man on Earth whenever I heard those cheers.”
Lee said he is looking forward to joining those fans in the stands.
“I am going to leave my bat and glove, and come to the ballpark to have some beers and chicken,” Lee said. “I will move from the plate to the seats.”
Lee’s remarkable career included stops in Japan and in the United States: four seasons with the Orix Buffaloes and then the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Nippon Professional Baseball, and one year with the Seattle Mariners in Major League Baseball.
Lee began his career with six games for the Giants in 2001 and didn’t become a regular until 2004, when he established career highs with 20 home runs and 68 RBIs.
Lee captured the first of his two Triple Crowns in 2006, leading the league with a .336 average, 26 home runs and 88 RBIs.
Lee enjoyed a historic campaign in 2010, when he led the KBO in seven of the eight official categories: batting average (.364), on-base percentage (.444), slugging percentage (.667), hits (174), runs (99), home runs (44) and RBIs (133). He captured his first and only regular season MVP award that season. He also homered in nine consecutive games in 2010, which KBO and Giants fans like to call a world record. The major league mark is eight.
Lee was overseas from 2012 to 2016, winning the Japan Series MVP for the Hawks in 2015, and rejoined the Giants in 2017. He did not miss a beat, ranking fifth with 34 home runs and sixth with 111 RBIs.
The veteran first baseman/designated hitter put together a memorable final season, with three grand slams in the second half alone.
He entered Saturday’s finale as among the league leaders in all major categories: fourth in batting average (.332), fourth in hits (178), tied for fifth in home runs (23), tied for fourth in RBIs (100), sixth in slugging percentage (.502) and ninth in on-base percentage (.380).
This was Lee’s 11th season with at least 20 homers, his seventh with at least 100 RBIs and his eighth with at least a .300 batting average.
Lee has been on a farewell tour across the league since the start of the second half of the season, with opposing teams presenting him with a gift and holding ceremonies to honor the retiring veteran before the Giants’ road games.
As he remained productive into his age-40 season, Lee constantly fielded questions about whether he would reconsider his decision to retire. Lee kept insisting his mind had long been made up and he would not change it, even though his performance suggested he still had so much left in the tank.
On the all-time list, Lee ranked fifth with 2,198 hits, third with 374 home runs and third with 1,424 RBIs prior to Saturday’s game.
Despite his outstanding career, Lee said he can only give himself 50 out of 100 points, because he never won the coveted Korean Series championship.
“I think I’ve done okay for myself, but I never was able to deliver a championship to the team I’ve loved since I was a kid,” Lee said. “I feel like I’ve put that burden on the young guys here. I feel bad about that. I will be ready to help them with anything, be it in technical things or any know-how.”
Lee said he was proud to have performed so well in his final season, instead of taking up a roster spot as a token veteran.
“I really wanted to go out on top. I felt that was the only way I could reward my fans’ faith,” Lee said. “I think I’ve been incredibly lucky. I am happy to be going out surrounded by so much love and support.”
Internationally, Lee was a member of South Korea’s gold medal-winning team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and at the 2015 Premier12.
“There are so many games that have stayed with me, but I think national team games are on the top of that list,” Lee said. “It’s always an honor to represent the country, but at the same time, it can be quite stressful. I hope fans can get behind the players through thick and thin. I think it will help Korean baseball in the long run.”
Lee said it would take him a while before he could return to Sajik, because he might get too emotional at the mere sight of the stadium. But he left the door open for a coaching gig in the future, saying, “If an opportunity presents itself, I’d love to be back with the guys that I’ve spent time with on this team.”