Born three years apart, Doosan Bears catcher Yang Eui-ji and third baseman Heo Kyoung-min played baseball on the same elementary school team. Then as teammates in the Korea Baseball Organization, they enjoyed massive success together, winning Korean Series titles for the Bears in 2015 and 2016.
Yang bolted for another club, the NC Dinos, in free agency after the 2018 season. Heo won his third Korean Series ring without Yang in 2019, while Yang took the Dinos to their first title the very next year, beating the Bears in the Korean Series, no less.
And as fate would have it, Yang returned to the Bears after hitting free agency again after the 2022 season on a six-year deal. Now 35, Yang will likely finish his career as a Bear.
Heo, 32, is in the third year of his seven-year contract. He too is expected to spend the rest of his KBO career with the Bears.
As they enter the back end of their careers, it's easy to sense a bromance brewing between the veterans.
"The four seasons without Eui-ji were really difficult for me," Heo said Tuesday, after the Bears rallied past the Kiwoom Heroes in a 6-4 victory. Heo went 2-for-3 with two steals and two runs scored, while Yang smoked a tie-breaking, two-run double in the three-run seventh at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul.
"Just to have him crouch behind the plate gives our team so much strength," Heo went on. "I am really glad he returned. I hope we will have a lot of fun together for the rest of our careers here."
When informed of these words moments later, Yang said the feeling was mutual, though he didn't miss his chance to crack a joke.
"I don't understand why he said those four years were tough for him. He made a ton of money with that new contract of his," Yang said with a smile. "Obviously, we go back many years, all the way to our school days, and we've also been on the national team together. He's the one guy who really wanted me back here on this team."
Heo is the new Bears captain for this season, and Yang, though he is three years older, said he is more than ready to follow Heo's lead this year.
"I can see he's really trying hard to be a good leader," Yang said. "He has had a great career, and I think he still has so much more to give."
In Tuesday's win, Heo stole two bags in a game for the first time since September 2015. But Heo insisted he is not trying any harder to go the extra mile just because of his captaincy.
"I think every professional baseball player competes hard and carries a sense of responsibility," Heo said sheepishly. "I know what I can do to help the team, and so I just try to do my part the best I can."
In a moment that showed his unselfish leadership, Heo said he wanted to highlight the exploits of shortstop Lee Yu-chan, who went 2-for-4 with a steal Tuesday.
The 24-year-old has been getting a regular look at shortstop this year, and seems to have an inside track on the full-time job thanks to his speed and defense.
"Yu-chan has the type of energy that no one else on this team has," Heo said. "He may not have gaudy stats at the moment, but if you stay patient with him, he can grow into a difference maker."
Breaking into a grin, Heo added: "I hope you guys (in the media) don't come down too hard on him when he makes mistakes. But when you see me play poorly, you can hammer me all you want." (Yonhap)