BUSAN, South Korea — Considering how hard the Giants fought him in salary arbitration over the years, Lee Dae-ho, the 2010 MVP, and triple-crown slugger who once hit a world record nine home runs in nine consecutive games, was at least gracious in his parting statement.
The team is well-known for maintaining a tight leash on their players when talking to the press, so it is not surprising that Lee’s statement, released through the team, was heavy on the pleasantries:
“I want to express my gratitude again to the Giants and the fans, for their support until now. I want to thank my former team, for the consideration they have shown me during the free agent deal. I have decided to go overseas to fulfill my dream as a baseball player and seek new challenges. I will always keep the love my former team and fans have shown me close to heart while I am abroad.”
In an interview with Haps, former Giant’s manager, Jerry Royster, was not so kind in his assessment of what Lee Dae-ho must be feeling towards his former bosses. Royster recalls Lee expressing animosity towards the Giants’ organization for trying to curb his salary after consistently stellar performances at the plate.
“He said that he would not forget what they did those years and would not sign when his free agent year came around,” Royster told Haps, from his home in San Diego. “I think a lot had to do with the fact that Lotte tried to low ball him in 2009, and tried to cut his salary in 2010 after he won the Triple Crown.”
It didn't end there. At the beginning of this past season, after winning the MVP the year before, Lee asked the Giants for $610,000 per year. The Giants refused, and it went to arbitration, with Lee ending up getting only $550,000.
The team cited his “his lack of fielding ability, the team’s standing (4th) and to ensure fairness among other players,” as their reasons for not giving the league's best player a raise.
Two triple crowns and an MVP the year before –with Lee leading the league in an unprecedented seven categories– apparently wasn't enough.
Royster, who played sixteen years in the major leagues, as well as managing the Milwaukee Brewers, saw greatness in Lee's play, but had trouble convincing the team to give Lee his due.
Royster came on as the Giants manager in 2008, taking the traditionally cellar-dwelling club to the playoffs each of his three years at the helm –breaking every KBO attendance record in the process while bringing the team to national prominence.
Even with those credentials, the organization wouldn't be swayed. The Giants instead chose to use the KBO’s stringent free agency policies against their star player, according to Royster.
“I tried to get them to sign him to a long term contract after the 2009 season and they said that he didn't have any leverage so they could save a lot of money,” said Royster. “They never got the idea of how much they could save in the long run.”
Baseball writer, Matthew Dewoskin, who publishes True Stories of Korean Baseball, an English blog covering the KBO on a weekly basis, agrees with Royster’s assessment that Lee’s decision to leave had much to do with the Giants’ unyielding stance at the negotiating table.
“Lotte shouldn't be surprised considering how they have treated him over the years," said Dewoskin from his home in Daegu. When he won the triple crown, and they tried to cut his salary, they should have expected he would be looking for greener pastures. I think it is really a question of respect more than anything else.”
2008, Olympic Gold with the national team.
To their credit, the Giants reportedly offered Lee a four-year $8.7 million deal to stay on with the team –the highest offer in the 30-year history of Korean baseball. But it looks to be a case of too little too late, as Lee rejected the deal over the weekend and expressed his desire to play abroad.
“I have decided to go overseas to fulfill my dream as a baseball player and seek new challenges. I will always keep the love my former team and fans have shown me close to heart while I am abroad,” he said through a statement released by the team.
By all accounts, Lee will be headed to Japan where Osaka’s Orix Buffaloes have offered the slugger a reported 2-year deal for $6.1 million.
Royster laments that in the end, all of Korean baseball will suffer from the loss of one of its greatest players and the most famous face in the KBO.
“Now they don't have him and the league doesn't have him. They never showed any loyalty to him and in return he shouldn't show any to them,” said Royster. “It is their fault that the face of the franchise and the league is leaving.”
And his leaving is not only a sore spot for Giants' fans but also a sad day for the city where he was born and raised.
Lee Dae-ho, by the numbers:
The 29-year-old Lee has been with the Giants since his KBO debut eleven years ago. He leaves the league with a .309 lifetime batting average, 809 RBIs, 225 home runs and two triple crowns.
Lee was named the league’s MVP in 2010 after leading the league in an unprecedented seven categories.
Lead photo courtesy of SportsChosun.com
Royster photo by Robert S. Digby for Haps