2017-12-03 17:26
Cruel season - some players forced to retire


Former LG Twins first baseman Jeong Seong-hoon was released from the club on Nov. 30. Some fans rallied against the Seoul-based club, urging general manager Yang Sang-moon to step down to take responsibility for what they called the “wrong decision.”/ Yonhap

Second-chance stories few and far between

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Being a star player, such as former Samsung Lions slugger Lee Seung-yuop, is every baseball player’s dream.

During his 15 prolific seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) League, he broke countless records, including Asia’s then single-season home run record with 56 home runs during the 2003 season. He rose to stardom and was one of the highest-paid KBO players of his time.

The way he bade farewell to baseball fans also became an object of jealousy among fellow baseball players. The Lions had prepared a grandiose farewell ceremony to help the baseball legend retire with honor at the Daegu Samsung Lions Park on Oct.3. Before home fans crowded the stadium, the Lions retired his jersey and awarded Lee with plaques commemorating his home runs and other historic moments he made. Lee left the baseball world while receiving a standing ovation.

In reality, however, retiring as Lee did is rare. Baseball experts say it is as difficult as becoming “the camel that managed to enter the eye of a long slender sewing needle,” a phrase old Koreans use when they describe an insanely competitive situation.

What happens to the vast majority of KBO players is they retire against their will.
Every year, 100 rookies join the KBO League. They are already chosen people, considering nearly 1,000 athletes ? both high school and college players ? competed to make the cut in a series of drafts.

The newly added 100-strong fresh faces for the 10 baseball clubs means another 100 on existing rosters must leave. Thus, in a way, those who manage to stay on their teams’ postseason rosters deserve the praise they are “the best of the best.”
On Nov. 30, the KBO clubs unveiled their retained player lists, while releasing 79 players. Those who failed to make their team’s 40-man roster include several veteran players, such as former LG Twins first baseman Jeong Seong-hoon. These players became free agents against their will and will be able to play again only if they sign with other clubs. If there are no teams that will award them a contract, they have no choice but to retire.

The release of Twins infielder Jeong, 37, came as a shock. He batted .312 with six home runs and 32 RBIs in 115 games during the 2017 season. The Twins said releasing the veteran player was an inevitable choice because the club has pushed for a generational change to make the team younger and stronger.
But the club’s decision backfired. Some Twins fans launched a protest in front of Jamsil baseball stadium in southern Seoul urging general manager Yang Sang-moon to change the “unfair decision” in the name of rebuilding. Those fans insist the Twins’ front office showed no respect for veteran players such as Jeong who is a critical asset to the club. The Twins front office has not reacted to their request.
Postseason rebuilding is a cruel process for players like Jeong who are removed from their team’s roster.

In a media interview, Kia Tigers slugger Choi Hyeong-woo recounted how tough it was to be a player being released from his team’s roster after the 2005 season. “I was so upset, partly because I had never thought I would be one of the players to be released,” he said. Choi joined the Samsung Lions in 2002 and was forced to leave three years later.

‘Bittersweet’

However, the trying times turned out to be a blessing for the slugger because it allowed him to think seriously about what went wrong and how he could upgrade his baseball skill. Choi said he had two months left before he joined the mandatory military service after leaving the Lions.

“I went down to my hometown. I was penniless. I decided to work as a laborer at a construction site because there were no jobs available for me at that time,” he recalled. “For one month, I worked hard while cursing the team that ousted me again and again. After those blistering times, I realized I became resolute and was able to build the drive to win. Whenever times are tough, I always think about the bittersweet memories that I had gone through in the darkest days of my life and try to overcome the difficulties I faced.”

After eight prolific seasons with the Lions after he rejoined the Daegu-based club, then free agent Choi became the first KBO Leaguer to sign a 10 billion won contract for four years with the Tigers.

Nexen Heroes infielder Seo Gun-chang is another rare player having a second chance at success. He joined the Twins in 2008 as a non-roster rookie but was released after the season. After completing his military service, he joined the Heroes in 2011. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2012 and became the MVP of the regular season after producing a record-high 201 hits during the 2014 season.

Fans rejoice when a player succeeds at a second chance, especially when that player comes back to play even better than they played before they were released.
For every player who succeeds at a second chance, however, there are hundreds who don’t make it in baseball and are forced to live without it.

Even veteran baseball players are still relatively young men. All of them reached the pinnacle of achievement as athletes in an extremely competitive sport. The courage and will it took for them to succeed in baseball is still there to help them succeed in whatever line of work they choose to pursue after baseball.
But for that rare baseball player who succeeds at his second chance, the victory is something to savor.


hkang@ktimes.com