The Doosan Bears abruptly fired Kim Jin-wook as their manager late Wednesday, weeks after finishing runner-up in the top domestic baseball league, citing his inability to take the team to the next level.
The Seoul-based Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club said they promoted Song Il-soo, formerly the manager of their minor league affiliate, to replace Kim. The Bears also said Song, 62, has signed for three years, with an annual salary of 250 million won ($235,500) and another 250 million won in signing bonus.
Kim, 53, was sacked with one year remaining on his three-year contract.
The surprise decision by the Bears is the latest in a series of offseason moves that have left frustrated fans scratching their heads.
The Bears have lost three key veterans via free agency this month, unable to re-sign outfielder Lee Jong-wook, shortstop Son Si-heon and infielder Choi Jun-seok. They also lost their utility man Leem Jae-cheol and relief pitcher Lee Hei-chun via Rule 5 draft.
Later, the Bears traded infielder Yoon Suk-min, a 28-year-old once tabbed as the team's cleanup man of the future, to the Nexen Heroes for light-hitting outfielder Jang Min-seok.
Kim Jin-wook had been with the Bears in Miyazaki, Japan, for their offseason training and received his pink slip on Wednesday, when he briefly returned to South Korea to attend to personal matters.
Kim led the Bears to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. In 2012, they were knocked out of the first round by the Lotte Giants. Then this year, they made a surprising run to the championship Korean Series, where they bowed out to the Samsung Lions in seven games.
In the opening round, they fell behind the Nexen Heroes two games to none before taking the next three games to advance. In the second round, they eliminated the LG Twins in four games.
In the final, the Bears looked to be in the driver's seat, taking three of the first four games, but ended up losing the final three games. They were the first team to blow a 3-1 Korean Series lead and lose.
Though Kim had been known as a players' manager who showed flexibility in working with his coaches, team officials noted that Kim lacked the killer instinct in the clutch.
"In terms of his character and his interaction with players, Kim was beyond reproach," said Kim Tae-joon, the Bears' director of public relations. "But we felt he didn't quite have what it takes to get us over the hump in key situations."
Another team official, requesting anonymity, said Kim and the Bears shared a common goal but had differences in how they should pursue it.
The official cited Game 5 of the Korean Series as the turning point.
The Bears needed just one more victory to clinch their first championship in 12 years. Kim, however, was panned for his passive use of his relief corps in Game 5 and in the rest of the series.
In the fifth game, the Lions took a 3-0 lead in the top first and led 4-1 at one point, before the Bears pulled even at 4-4 after three innings. Through five innings, the score was knotted at 5-5, but the Lions scored two runs in the top of the eighth for the 7-5 victory.
The Lions used their usual starter Rick van den Hurk for two innings in relief, a desperate move to help them avoid elimination.
The Bears, though, made one uninspired pitching change after another, and ended up sending out six pitchers to throw the final four innings, including little-used Kim Myung-sung and ineffective Hong Sang-sam.
After the Bears built the commanding 3-1 Korean Series lead, Kim Jin-wook repeatedly said he was preparing for the possibility of Game 7 and hinted he would save key bullpen arms for such a scenario, rather than trying to finish off the Lions before the series went the distance.
Song Il-soo is a Japan-born South Korean who made his playing debut in Japan and retired in the KBO. He had coached and scouted in Japan before joining the Bears as the minor league manager earlier this year.
"He is a manager who stresses fundamentals," the Bears said.
"And he is also quick on his feet and can lead us to play creative and aggressive baseball."
Song said he was surprised by his promotion. He will have his first meeting with the team on Dec. 1. (Yonhap News)