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Korea looks to redeem poor '96 showing

By Thomas St. John

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SEOUL—There will be one major league baseball Dream Team at the 2000 Olympics. It will belong to Korea, which hopes to atone for a shockingly dismal 1-6 performance at the 1996 Games, when it was expected to contend for a medal but instead finished eighth among eight teams.

Embarrassed by its play four years earlier, Korea has shut down its major leagues to send its top professional players to Sydney. Of course, the contingent will not include U.S. major leaguers such as Byung-Hyun Kim of the Diamondbacks or Chan Ho Park of the Dodgers, nor will it have players in the U.S. minor leagues.

Even so, Korea's strength remains its pitching, led by Hanwha Eagles lefthander Dae-Song Koo and Hyundai Unicorns righthander Min-Tae Chung. Koo throws in the mid-90s with pinpoint control, and at least five U.S. teams have been scouting him. Chung won 20 games last year and is expected to seek free-agent millions from U.S. or Japanese major league teams after the 2000 Korean season concludes.

Though they don't have the Diamondbacks' Kim, Korea still will have a sidearming closer who could give opponents fits. Righthander Chang-Yong Lim led the KBO with a 2.14 ERA and 38 saves last year for the Samsung Lions, and has major league potential.

Other top pitchers include Hyundai righthander Soo-Kyung Kim, the 1998 KBO rookie of the year and Hanwha lefthander Jin-Woo Song, who threw a no-hitter in KBO play this year. The staff also features two veterans from the ill-fated 1996 team.

Unicorns righthander Sun-Dong Lim started and took the loss against Team USA in a round-robin game, and posted a 8.64 ERA in two appearances. Lotte Giants righthander Min-Han Son fared even worse, giving up 10 earned runs in five Olympic innings.

The offense is led by Samsung Lions first baseman Senug-Yeop Lee, who last year came within one homer of the Asian record of 55, set by Japan's Sadaharu Oh. Lee hit 54 homers, obliterating the KBO mark by 12, and also set new Korean standards for RBI and walks. Not surprisingly, he was named league MVP.

Doosan Bears third baseman Dong-Joo Kim also offers power. This season, he hit the longest homer in the history of the KBO, an estimated 160-meter (520-foot) shot that landed on top of the subway station in front of Seoul's Olympic baseball stadium.

Two outfielders, Lotte's Byung-Kyu Lee and Hyundai's Jae-Hong Park, are regular 30-homer hitters in the KBO. Lee finished second in the 1999 batting race with a .349 average, while clubbing 30 homers and stealing 31 bases.

Lee is the only hitter who was on the 1996 Olympic team, and he was one of the few Koreans to stand out in Atlanta. He ranked second on the club with a .375 batting average while tying for the lead with six RBI.

It's almost certain that Korea will fare better than it did four years ago, and as of late it has had the upper hand against its archrival, Japan. The Koreans won the 1998 Asian Games and the 1999 Olympic qualifying tournament for Asian teams. Winning a medal would be a first for Korea, which lost bronze-medal games to Taiwan in 1984 and Puerto Rico in 1988.

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