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Fans Have Given Me Strength

Posted August. 11, 2002 22:30,   


It has been over a year since Lee Jong-bum (32, Kia Tigers), one of the nation’s most beloved baseball players, came back after his disappointing seasons in Japan. Back home, however, he has proved he is a professional. Thanks to the all-around player, his team Kia Tigers is topping the league, beating most of expert predictions.

We met Lee Jong-bum who joined a team drill in Gwangju Stadium on August 8. Earlier in a match with Lotte Giants on July 30, he was hit by ball and seriously injured on the left cheek. Doctors initially said that it took at least two months to treat the fracture, but he began weight training on the 6th, recovering faster than expected. On the day of the interview, Lee got on a running machine first time in about 10 days.

- How are you doing?

“I still have some pain when I run. But I have to join the team as soon as possible since Choi Sang-duk and Shin Dong-joo are also missing games. I feel relieved that games are delayed due to the heavy rain. It’s like the heaven is on our side.”

- Don’t you think it’s too early to begin exercising?

“I just wanted to find out if I could run. If I die I will die on the ground, this is what I am thinking right now. I don’t want to disappoint the fans coming to see me. At first, I was only thinking about playing again, but now I know it will take time. That way, I can play better for our fans. I have to stay on the ground as long as I can for our fans. It will probably take another week to get back on the ground.”

- Coach Kim Sung-han was worrying about missing a mental leader for his team…..

“I am just doing my best and trying to set an example. My hardworking at the winter camp has paid me off, and we are leading the league. Young players respect that. I am trying to help young players concentrate and to play an intermediary role between the coaching staff and colleagues.”

- Do young players follow your lead well?

“In fact, I don’t see ‘do-or-die’ mentality among young players these days. Most of them are content with having earned hundreds of millions won. When they feel sick a little, they want to take a day off. In the past, seniors used to lead the atmosphere, but it’s quite opposite now. I just scold them sometimes when they get lazy while getting along with them comfortably most times. What I see now is a turnabout from back in the old Haitai years.”

- What is the driving force of the team’s success so far?

“It’s trust. There is trust between coaching staff and players and between seniors and young players. We do not have star players, but instead believe we can do it together. That’s the key.”

- You now seem to regain your confidence after the bitter experience in Japan.

“I owe it to my fans. They gave me such warm welcome last year when I came back. I was almost crying. They are always by my side even when I make mistakes. I just have to try harder for those fans. So I have been doing my utmost on the ground. We, professional players, are all here thanks to fans.”

- Fans would not come to see you if it were not for your great play….

“They still remember what I used to be in my prime years. I hit, ran and scored whenever necessary. Of course, I try to do the same now, but I get easily tired now.

- You are going to join the national team….

“It has been 10 years since I played in the national squad in 1992. I hope that we can win a gold medal. I want to play well for the team but I also feel pressured. I have to live up to fans’ expectations. I know once you become a professional star player, you will be held accountable for a defeat. Personally, I think it will be better for the national team to have more amateur players.

- Why do you think so?

“They are better motivated, to get exempted from military services. It is also true with pro players who face the same military duty dilemma. I had to serve my term as a national guard. Players must keep playing while they can. Military service means a long break. Of course, coach Kim In-shik, on his part, needs to form the best lineup.”

- Any plan to go abroad again?

“Not any more. I made up my mind when I came back last year. I am already 32 years old. I plan to go to America to study after retiring to become a coach.”

- When do you plan to retire?

“I hope to play another 5 to 6 years, but it depends on my physical strength.”

- Will you stay in Kia?

“Fans say there is no Kia without Lee Jong-bum. I want to play for Kia fans.”

Jong-Koo Yang yjongk@donga.com