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Lee retires unexpectedly

For professional athletes, the most difficult thing is knowing when it’s time to call it a career. Lee Jong-beom of the Kia Tigers reached that point this spring.

The 41-year-old announced on Saturday his retirement from baseball after 19 seasons in the country’s top baseball league.

The news came as a shock as until recently the longtime franchise star trained hard in the offseason, hoping to continue playing for the team this season, which kicks off this weekend.

But with just one week to go before the opening of the season, Lee was told that he had been demoted to the reserve-team squad and that there would be a slim chance of him making the first team this year.

Manager Sun Dong-ryul reportedly advised him to consider a coaching role for the team instead.
Lee Jong-beom retires with a .297 career batting average. (Yonhap News)
Lee Jong-beom retires with a .297 career batting average. (Yonhap News)

“I couldn’t accept the decision,” Lee told reporters Saturday.

The veteran said he still felt he had something to offer the game. And his preseason performance also shows that the game is not done with him.

The outfielder was having a relatively strong spring training with a .333 batting average in 12 games.

But it was not enough to convince Sun, who has been trying to rebuild his team, introducing more young players since he took the helm in October 2011.

“I went through all the overseas training and spring training for the new season, and suddenly, I was told to leave. I’m disappointed with the situation,” Lee said.

Lee noted that he was not sure about his future plans, saying: “If I had known what was coming, I’d have prepared myself.”

Whether or not Lee takes a coaching role with the Tigers, he will be remembered as one of the country’s greatest hitters.

Since his debut with the Haitai Tigers, the predecessor of the Kia Tigers, in 1993, Lee has always been steady, sometimes spectacular, winning four championship titles with the team.

In his rookie year, Lee batted .280 with 16 home runs and 73 stolen bases.

His best season was in 1994, when he won the MVP award with a .393 average and 30 home runs. After winning his third championship title in 1997, Lee joined the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s top league.

But after an unsuccessful three-year stint in Japan, Lee returned to the Tigers in 2001.

Injuries were an unfortunate hindrance to Lee’s career.

In addition to an elbow operation, he had to deal with nagging ailments since 2004.

Despite his injuries, however, at age 38, Lee helped the Tigers win the championship title again in 2009.

Lee played a total of 1,706 games in 16 seasons with the Tigers, batting .297 with 194 home runs, 730 RBIs and 510 stolen bases.

Lee is expected to hold a news conference soon to announce his future plans.

By Oh Kyu-wook (