Ex-big leaguer hoping to bring hometown team championship

BUSAN-- Having re-joined his hometown club in South Korea after one year in the majors, former Seattle Mariners first baseman Lee Dae-ho said Thursday he wants to cap off his career with a championship for the fans here.

Lee returned to Busan, some 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul, after training on his own in Saipan for the better part of a month. On Tuesday, he signed a four-year deal worth 15 billion won (US$12.9 million) with the Lotte Giants in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), where he began his pro career in 2001.

In 2016 with the Mariners, Lee batted .253 with 14 homers and 49 RBIs in 104 games. He became a free agent after the season, and he said he decided to come home again because "I was confident I could help this team."

"While I was playing overseas, I'd missed our Lotte fans so much," Lee said after landing at Gimhae International Airport. "I can't wait to be playing in front of them again."

Lee, 34, was the face of the Giants franchise, and one of the KBO's most feared sluggers. He won two Triple Crowns here, and was voted the league MVP in 2010 after leading the KBO in seven major offensive categories. Lee also led the Giants to four consecutive postseasons starting in 2008.

For his KBO career, Lee has 225 home runs and 809 RBIs in 1,150 games, along with a .309 batting average. He belted at least 20 home runs in seven of his last eight KBO seasons before departing for Japan in 2012.

He played for two clubs in Japan until 2015, first with the Orix Buffaloes and then with Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. In 2015, He was the Japan Series MVP as the Hawks claimed their second straight title.

Lee turned down a lucrative offer from the Hawks to pursue a major league job, and landed with the Mariners on a minor league contract last year. Lee worked his way on to the major league roster, but platooned at first base with left-handed hitting Adam Lind all season.

As a free agent, Lee sought a full-time opportunity in the majors, but ultimately came home on the biggest contract ever handed to a free agent in the KBO's 35-year history.

"I could feel in my heart that the fans wanted me back here," Lee said. "I felt it was now or never."

His return was greeted with joy and excitement from Lotte faithfuls, who haven't tasted the postseason since 2012. Once the KBO's biggest draw that topped home attendance for five consecutive seasons, the Giants have been playing to an increasing number of empty seats in recent years, coinciding with their fall in the standings. They haven't won a championship since 1992.

In addition to revitalizing the market, Lee will be counted on to fill the void left by the departure of Hwang Jae-gyun, a slugging third baseman who signed with the San Francisco Giants on the same day that Lee inked his deal with Lotte.

Lee acknowledged he will be under a lot of pressure to deliver, but said he'll try to enjoy it.

"Basically, we have a strong ball club," he added. "If we all go out there and have fun, then the fans will come to our games. And we can feed off their energy."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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