By Thomas St. John
October 2, 2003
Lee Seung-yeop connects for No. 56
In one dramatic swing of the bat, Korea’s most prolific home-run hitter became Asia’s most prolific home-run hitter and a 39 year-old batting record fell.
In the final game of the Korean Baseball Organization’s regular season, Lee Seung-yeop broke the long-standing Asian home run record, as he slugged his 56th home run, snapping the Asian record of 55, set by Japan’s Sadaharu Oh in 1964. Since that time, two foreigners, Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002 equaled the mark but no one had been able to hit 56 in Asia.
A couple of weeks earlier, Lee appeared ready to easily top the record. But a late-season slump meant that the first baseman came into the last game of the season needing one home run to break Oh’s mark.
He got it in his first at bat to lead off the second inning, a solo blast to center that sent a nation into a celebration unlike any other since the league was formed in 1982.
After he touched home and was greeted by coaches and teammates, the game was paused as Lee took the stage and posed for the international media on hand to cover the event. A short speech thanking fans for their support was followed by a quick photo shoot and the game resumed moments later. As the next batter stepped into the box, Lee walked over to the bench, put his head into his hands and just reflected on what had just transpired.
After the pressure to break Oh’s record was off his shoulders, Lee concentrated on increasing his average so he could finish above .300–he came into the game hitting .299. Lee struggled with his average early in the season though he kept hitting the long ball all season. In his final regular season game in Korea, Lee was 3-for-3 with a walk and finished the season hitting .301-56-144 setting a slew of new batting records in the process.
Exactly seven days earlier, Lee broke his own Korean single-season home run record of 54 which he set in 1999 but there was not that much fanfare about the new Korean record. All attention was focused on the Asian mark.
As Lee neared the record, one fan brought a fishing net to the game to try and have a height advantage over everyone else if the ball would be hit near him in the outfield bleachers. The next day, over 2,000 fans brought fishing nets, butterfly nets, or anything else that would allow them to reach over someone else. When Lee’s 55th went over the wall, it was a lucky fan who brought a six-foot net that reeled in the big one.
Lee is a free agent at the end of the season and is expected to head to the U.S. as the first Korean player to jump from the Korean Baseball Organization to the major leagues.