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Never satisfied

Despite having a strong first season in Japan, Lee Dae-ho sees room for improvement

GIMHAE (Yonhap News) ― Upon returning from a strong first season in Japan, South Korean baseball slugger Lee Dae-ho said he was only half-satisfied with his performance this year.

The Nippon Professional Baseball star received a hero’s welcome at Gimhae International Airport, some 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul, arriving home two days after finishing his first season with the Orix Buffaloes.

Lee ended the season with a .286 average, 24 home runs and 91 RBIs.

He led the six-team Pacific League in RBIs, becoming the first South Korean to rank first in an offensive category in either the Pacific or Central leagues in the NPB.
Orix’s Lee Dae-ho batted .286 with 24 homers and 91 RBIs this season. (Yonhap News)
Orix’s Lee Dae-ho batted .286 with 24 homers and 91 RBIs this season. (Yonhap News)

Lee was second in home runs, three behind Takeya Nakamura of the Seibu Lions; second in slugging percentage with .478; and fifth in on-base percentage with .368.

When asked to rate his season, however, the 30-year-old said he would only give himself “about 50 points” on a scale of 100.

“I led the league in RBIs, but I was supposed to do that since I am getting paid so much money,” Lee said.

In December last year, Lee signed a two-year deal worth 760 million yen ($9.7 million), becoming the 13th South Korean in the NPB and the highest-paid among them.

“I did next to nothing in the first month and the final month of the season, and I didn’t get to .300 average or 100 RBIs,” Lee added. “But I’ve also gained a great deal of confidence this season and I think I will have better numbers next year.”

Lee was the only Orix player to appear in all 144 games this season and batted cleanup in every game. The hulking first baseman, listed at 194 centimeters and 130 kilograms, said the long season took a physical and mental toll on him.

“Playing every game was a major challenge,” he said. “We made a lot of long road trips, and played many 1 p.m. games. For those, I had to start getting ready at 7:30 a.m.”

Lee enjoyed a successful 11-year career for the Lotte Giants in the Korea Baseball Organization. And when he signed with Orix, Lee said he was burdened by expectations.

“I felt that if it didn’t pan out in Japan, then I’d make it harder for younger Korean players to come to Japan in the future,” he said. “I was under so much stress that my neck would stiffen before games early in the season.”

Lee picked up his pace and was named the monthly MVP for May and July. Lee won the home run derby at the All-Star festivities.

In the KBO, he won the league’s MVP award in 2010, after claiming his second career batting Triple Crown as the league leader in batting average, home runs and RBIs, and also topping the KBO in four other offensive categories.

He followed that up with his second straight batting title in 2011. Lee declared for free agency after that season, and when his contract talks with the Giants fell through, Orix swooped in to sign the first baseman.

In 11 KBO seasons, he batted .309 with 225 home runs and 809 RBIs.

Despite Lee’s heroics at the plate, the Buffaloes finished last among the six Pacific League teams with 57 wins, 77 losses and 10 ties. Their manager Akinobu Okada was fired late last month.

Lee said the Buffaloes were a star-crossed team slowed by injuries to key players, and that they should improve next season under new manager Hiroshi Moriwaki.