The international influence on major league baseball (MLB) is hard to miss these days.
And a South Korean-born first baseman is the newest member of an elite group of international players that have made watching the Seattle Mariners a little less painful in recent years.
Dae-Ho Lee has quickly emerged as a fan-favorite, and yesterday he snapped the five game losing streak that was haunting the team’s once-hopeful early season.
In Wednesday night’s game against the Texas Rangers, the Mariners were on the verge of succumbing to its second series sweep. Entering the 10th inning, tied at 2-2, with one on and two outs, Lee took the plate as a pinch hitter.
With one strike left, and the risk of stranding a man on base looming, Lee ripped a fly ball to left field for a walk-off two run home run, ending the game and earning the Mariners their first win an Safeco Field.
“For him, when we first got to Spring Training, how was he going to handle the velocity? There were concerns there,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told MLB.com after Wednesday night’s victory. “But the thing that we kept seeing is that he is able to make adjustments. He cuts down the leg kick, he cuts down his swing to make contact, and he’s plenty strong enough that if he does square it up, he’s got enough power. So he makes adjustments.”
In an organization that has welcomed players like Japanese superstar right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, Dominican-born third baseman Adrian Beltre, and Felix Hernandez, a Venezuelan native who most know as King Felix, Lee is one of just a few South Korean players to sign MLB contracts.
Since 1994, 18 South Korean-born players have taken the field in the majors. Lee is the third Korean player to sign with the Mariners, following Shin-soo Choo and Cha-seung Baek brief stints with the team in the early 2000’s.
After a 15-year career playing in Korea and then Japan, the 33-year-old first baseman was ready to conquer the major leagues when he got the call earlier this year.
“All baseball players dream of playing in the majors,” Lee told The News Tribune. “And I’d like to pursue that dream. If I can give 100 percent, like I’ve done throughout my career, I don’t think it will be impossible.”
General manager Jerry Dipoto was confident in Lee’s abilities before the start of the season, and praised his notable career overseas, which includes leading the Korean Baseball Organization in batting average (.357), hits (176), and on-base percentage (.433) in the 2011 season, and becoming the first Korean to earn the MVP at the Japan Series, the Nippon Professional Baseball’s postseason championship series.
“Dae-Ho gives us another potential right-handed power bat in the first base competition,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a team statement. “He has performed at a very high level of production in both Korea and Japan and we are excited to see how that translates to our team.”
Lee influences more than just the at bats. He’s responsible for a 3.4 percent morning broadcast rating when the Mariners’ home opener aired live on Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting Company.
The Korean announcers’ ecstatic call of Lee’s game-winner on Wednesday is currently making the rounds on social media.
In what feels like it might be another tough year for the Mariners, Lee is making the impossible possible, and fans have taken notice.
“I’m a big fan of his bat and his power in the line up,” said Joe Veyera, columnist for The Grand Salami magazine. “It will be interesting to see how he faces the level of pitching [in the MLB.] It’s nothing like he’s used to.”
Skip to 1:30 to hear Korean announcers lose their minds after Lee’s walk-off homer Wednesday.