Star outfielder shrugs off Asian Games postponement, looks forward to WBC

SEOUL-- Lee Jung-hoo, the reigning batting champion in South Korean baseball, cherishes every chance he has to represent the country in international events. The 19th Asian Games in September would have been one of those opportunities for the Kiwoom Heroes' outfielder to showcase his talent.

But the Asian Games, scheduled to be held in Hangzhou, China, became the latest victim to the COVID-19 pandemic last Friday. The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) announced it would postpone the competition indefinitely due to the spread of the virus in China.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday before the Heroes hosted the Doosan Bears at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Lee admitted playing at the Asian Games had been on his mind all season long.

"Whenever we have an international event coming up, I always want to play well that season so I can make the national team," Lee said. "This would have been my second Asian Games (after the 2018 competition). I am disappointed that I won't get to go this year because it's a lot of fun playing for the country. I'll just have to focus on helping my club the rest of the season."

Though there is no formal age limit at the Asian Games baseball tournament, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), which governs professional competition, has set a self-imposed, under-24 cap. Had the Asian Games not been postponed, the KBO would have taken players born in 1998 or later, or players with no more than three years of professional playing experience. The KBO would have only allowed three overage players as "wild cards."

Lee, born in August 1998, would have met the age requirement on the number. Should the Asian Games take place next year instead -- new dates haven't been announced -- then Lee would have to be selected as a wild card unless the KBO extends the age limit by a year.

Lee said he was most looking forward to being on the national team with players all around the same age.

"You can learn so much representing the country, and doing it with the guys around my age would have been a lot of fun, too," Lee said. "I haven't been on the same team with those guys since I played on the junior national team. I know many of my friends were excited about playing with each other at the Asian Games."

Regardless of the age limit, Lee is a no-brainer choice for any international tournament. He won his first career batting title last season by hitting .360. He enters Tuesday's game with a lifetime batting average of .340, the highest mark among all players with at least 3,000 plate appearances.

And with the Asian Games off the calendar, Lee said he is now hoping to compete in one tournament he has yet to play at: the World Baseball Classic (WBC), scheduled for March 2023.

"The WBC is the ultimate in our sport. It's the World Cup of baseball," Lee said. "I know there will be some great players from the U.S. and Latin America in that tournament. It's not often that you get to compete against those players."

The WBC carries an extra bit of significance for the Lee family. At the inaugural WBC in 2006, Jung-hoo's famous father, Lee Jong-beom, delivered a clutch hit that sent South Korea to the semifinals.

In the third game of the second round, the senior Lee came through with a two-run double against Japan in the top of the eighth inning, breaking a scoreless deadlock and setting up a 2-1 victory. Lee's dash toward the first base, with both arms raised in celebration of the hit, is still considered one of the most memorable moments in South Korean baseball history.

"My dad once told me about how well the players were treated during the WBC and how great the ballparks were," the junior Lee said. The WBC is operated by Major League Baseball and games are played at big league stadiums. "It'd be nice to experience that for myself."

Source: Yonhap News Agency