Dae-Ho Lee has quickly become a favorite to fans and his Mariners teammates in the clubhouse. (AP)
Dae-Ho Lee is living his baseball dream.
Having proved himself in the Korean Baseball Organization and then Nippon Professional Baseball, he received his MLB opportunity from the Mariners this spring and has not disappointed on or off the field since. A favorite of his teammates, he has also captured the imagination of Mariners fans, who could be heard starting the “Dae-Ho” chant before he hit the top step of the dugout as a pinch-hitter in the 10th inning ofthe Mariners 6-5 win over the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday.
Imagination, however, is not necessary. Dae-Ho Lee has a story.
“Baseball started in third grade,” he said through interpreter D.J. Park. “I’m from Busan (South Korea) and that area is a baseball-crowded city. I loved baseball since I started.”
It was another future big leaguer who transferred late to his elementary school that encouraged a then 8-year-old Lee to play.
“In third grade Shin-Soo Choo transferred to my school and he kept asking me to play baseball so I finally started,” Lee said.
For Lee, growing up meant there was baseball and then more baseball. He was a player and a fan cheering on his favorite team, Busan’s Lotte Giants.
“The games were loud and there was much, much passion. The fans were so passionate,” he said.
Lee speaks fondly of his home city of 4.6 million.
“Busan is known as just like Seattle – it is a port city, with a very beautiful sea,” he said. “There is a city called Gwangalli, and they have a bridge, just like the Manhattan Bridge. Really beautiful and every summer they have fireworks, just like Independence Day fireworks. It is very special.”
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The warm memories of Busan mask the reality of a tough childhood. Lee has no memory of his parents – his father died when Lee was 3 and he was sent to live with his grandmother. While there was always baseball, money was scarce. The first things he did after signing his first contract was buy a house and a car. Sadly, his grandmother passed away shortly before that day. His voice, normally booming, grows soft when he talks about honoring his grandmother and upbringing by delivering heated charcoal briquettes to the elderly in the winter.
“It was my thing to help the community, especially elderly people, who live by themselves, who need our help,” he said. “I always wanted to help elderly people because I was raised by my grandma; it’s always in my mind. I have done it for 10 years and I am going to keep continuing to do it.
“I grew up with my grandma and she passed away when I was at an early age, as well,” he added. “I know they need our help. As I am doing it, I can look at my past. I grew up that way, as well. I don’t forget when I grow up.”
He also doesn’t forget those who taught him the game. Lee played every position as a child – with shortstop being his favorite because he thought he looked good there – and in doing so learned the basic fundamentals of the game. While he was a fan of the professional game and had his favorite players, it was those who worked with him at his school that he most looked up to.
“I watched a lot of MLB players in my day, but the coaches and managers from my school years, they are all of my heroes,” he said.
After high school, Lee signed his first professional contract. Originally signed as a pitcher – he is on record throwing in the mid-90s in the 2000 World Junior Baseball Championship in Canada – he was moved to first base just months later after suffering a shoulder injury. In his 11-year KBO career, he won batting titles, Gold Gloves, a triple crown and an MVP award. In August 2010, he hit home runs in a record nine straight games.
In 2011, Lee made the move to Japan to play in the NPB. There, he faced new challenges on the field.
“In Japan, they have really good pitchers throwing breaking balls, changeup, curveball,” he said. “I learned through those pitchers and practiced my skill, as well. Watching the pitches, it really helped me grow up.”
Watching pitches, and looking for the right one to square up, is the skill he cites as most important.
“I learned at an early age: hit the ball, make the contact in the middle of the bat,” he said. “That is my main motto always. When you hit it in the middle of the bat you get a home run, as well, but I wasn’t really taught as a home-run hitter.”
As he continued to improve in the Japanese League, Lee began to turn his sights to his next challenge. It was not the first time he thought of trying to sign in the US.
“When I was 20 I wanted to come here, but I realized it was a dream,” he said. “It was extreme, so I just practiced my own baseball. I did better in Korea and then four or five years ago I thought, OK, MLB was my next challenge.”
Lee capped off his four-year NPB career by becoming the first Korean-born player to win the Japan Series MVP. He had done everything he could in the KBO and NPB; it was time to test the MLB waters.
“It’s not because I watched the MLB baseball game. It wasn’t what I saw there. It was because I thought I was ready,” he said. “Physically, I was ready for the Major League game.”
Two weeks before pitchers and catchers were to report for the 2016 season, Lee signed a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training with the Mariners. While Lee had finally arrived at the place he’d dreamed of reaching, the first few days in the Mariners clubhouse were not easy.
“It was difficult, it was a little bit lonely at the start,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody, there was a language barrier, as well. Kyle Seager was the first to say hello and we talked a little bit in the clubhouse. Efren Navarro, he was very close to me.”
It didn’t take long for Lee to settle in, however. Language barrier be damned, Lee has a big personality and soon stories of that persona began to come out. He quickly began to feel like a teammate.
“He’s got a lot of personality,” said veteran outfielder, and fellow DH, Nelson Cruz. “He doesn’t know the language but he can still bring good jokes. As a new player, he feels like he belongs here, and that’s important. We, as leaders of the team, we make sure he feels comfortable in whatever he is doing. It’s nice.”
Lee had to leave spring training twice – once to get his work visa, and once for the birth of his second child. After he returned from that absence, manager Scott Servais saw Lee relax and get more comfortable in his surroundings.
“I think what the fans see, that’s who he is. It’s not an act,” Servais said. “He’s happy-go-lucky, he’s really a kind-hearted guy. He really loves his family. He is really into that. Understanding he has a family that he really didn’t have growing up, it’s really, really valuable to him.”
An eventful spring ended with Lee making Seattle’s 25-man roster. Now on the team, Lee embraces the somewhat odd role of being a 33-year-old rookie.
“I am a veteran as myself,” he said. “I played 11 years in Korea, four years in Japan, but as soon as I decided to go to MLB, I put it down. I just put it in my past. This is a new chapter going to MLB as a rookie. It just feels fun that those superstars, like Robinson Cano, like Nelson Cruz, of coming here and playing with them and chatting with them, it’s just fun.”
“In spring training he asked me to show him how to swing,” said Cruz with a laugh. “It was funny. He asked me and then I was like, ‘I want to see what you do, too!’ The swing is different, the leg kick, a lot of moving, but I always try to see him taking BP and the approach. He watches me, too.”
Cruz respects the experience that Lee brings. It is seemingly never more evident than when he steps up to the plate with his new team needing a run. In that moment, as he did in Korea and Japan, he sees himself as “the guy.” It is his job to get that run.
“As I look at myself, yes, I’m a rookie, my status is a rookie, but I am a veteran baseball player,” he said. “I have had this situation 2,000 times. When I am coming to bat, I know what to do. This is my job, this is what I have learned. I am a baseball player.”
A baseball player who is living his dream.
“It’s just a dream come true,” he said. “I came here to the Major Leagues. I am playing with the teammates I have been watching through the TV. I have been going stadium to stadium and enjoying playing baseball.”