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Renaissance in Korean baseball?

Hanwha’s Park Chan-ho (Yonhap News)
Hanwha’s Park Chan-ho (Yonhap News)
Return of veteran stars to boost league in 2012


A new year brings new inspiration, and expectations are higher than ever in Korean baseball as veteran stars are now back in the country’s top league.

One of the names that is likely to dominate the headlines this year is Park Chan-ho.

The former major-league All-Star pitcher signed a one-year deal with the Hanwha Eagles last month, which allows him to play for the first time in the Korean league.

After debuting with the L.A. Dodgers in 1994, Park pitched for more than 17 years in the majors. During his long spell there, the right-hander had a career record of 124-98 with a 4.36 ERA, the most wins by an Asian-born pitcher.

Park moved to Japan in 2011 after signing a one-year deal with the Orix Buffaloes, but was released before the end of the season.

Although Park has lost much of his explosive fastball over the years, his presence will have a huge impact for the Eagles. Observers predict that the veteran pitcher will be able to fit into the Eagles’ starting rotation.

Park has already begun working hard adjusting himself to the home league. He is currently staying in Arizona with his team for a pre-training camp.

Joining Park this year to rebuild the Eagles is slugger Kim Tae-kyun, who returns after a one-and-a-half year stint with Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines.

Before moving to Japan in 2009, Kim showed his prowess with a .310 batting average and 188 home runs over nine seasons.

He is still only 30 and may very well have some productive years left if he can keep his composure.

Another former major-league All-Star joining the Korea league is Kim Byung-hyun. The 33-year-old signed last week with the Nexen Heroes on a one-year deal worth 500 million won ($443,200), with an option of 100 million won more, ending the long speculation about his future. 
Nexen’s Kim Byung-hyun (Yonhap News)
Nexen’s Kim Byung-hyun (Yonhap News)
Samsung’s Lee Seung-yeop (Yonhap News)
Samsung’s Lee Seung-yeop (Yonhap News)

The right-handed, submarine relief pitcher had a successful career in the majors. After debuting with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1999, Kim put up 54 wins and 86 saves with a 4.42 ERA. Kim is the only South Korean with a World Series ring, which he earned with the Diamondbacks in 2001, and then again with the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

However, since 2007, after failing to find a team, he never returned to the major leagues. Last year, he played for the Rakuten Eagles in Japan’s top league, but was released without making any impact for the club.

Despite the initial doubts over his ability, the Heroes believe Kim will play a big role as their starter.

“He is the best submarine pitcher I have ever seen, and I believe he can notch at least 10 wins if he gets his form back,” said the Heroes pitching instructor Jung Min-chul.

The comeback of Lee Seung-yeop, the country’s best-known slugger, also has local fans excited. The 36-year-old joined his old team, the Samsung Lions, last month, ending his eight-year run in Japan.

Since his debut in 1995, Lee played nine seasons with the Lions, and had a .305 batting average with 324 home runs, before moving to Japan in 2004. He still has the record for most home runs in a single season with 56, set in 2003.

The Korea Baseball Organization announced that it has targeted a record 7 million fans during the 2012 season, which is set to kick off in April. The exhibition games are scheduled from March 17 to April 1.

By Oh Kyu-wook (596story@heraldcorp.com)
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