It was more meaningful that Lee Ji-young (38), the national catcher who moved to SSG Landers this winter, came to an environment where he could play than his hometown team’s comeback in 20 years.
After finishing the “2024 SSG Landers Fan Festival” held in Songdo, Incheon on Monday, Lee said, “I still can’t believe I’m an SSG player. I’m here for now, but I haven’t even received my uniform yet. I think I’ll realize it a lot if I go to spring camp together now.”
Earlier on the 12th, SSG and Kiwoom Heroes said, “After signing a two-year FA contract with Lee Ji-young for a total of 400 million won (350 million won per year and 50 million won in options), they traded with SSG Landers on the condition that they receive 250 million won and the third round of the rookie draft in 2025.”
It was a surprising move that everyone did not expect. Initially, SSG’s Plan A was seen as Kim Min-sik’s remaining. However, as the negotiation process with Kim Min-sik became prolonged over the years, SSG considered an alternative. It was Lee Ji-young who came to the conclusion. Lee had not received any suggestion from Kiwoom, his original team, which put forward generational change as a justification, and he was about to become an FA MIA. Interests between SSG, Kiwoom and Lee Ji-young fell together, and the transfer was quickly made in the form of sign-and-trade due to mutual concessions.
It is the first comeback in 20 years for Lee to play for his hometown team. Born in Incheon, Lee graduated from Seohwa Elementary School, Shinheung Middle School, Jemulpo High School and Kyungsung University, before joining the Samsung Lions in 2008 as a training player. He officially signed a contract with the main league in 2009, and in the 2009 season, he recorded a batting average of 0.214 (six hits in 28 times at bat) with four RBIs, two runs scored and nine strikeouts in 23 games, before settling military problems at the military athletic unit (military affairs).
After being discharged from the military in 2013, he entered the race to become a starting pitcher, and has established himself as a defensive catcher who plays around 100 games every year. Since the 2014 season, he has seen increasing batting performance, posting a batting average of 0.305 (110 hits in 400 at bats) in 124 games in 2015, and a career-high season in 2018 with a batting average of 0.343 (61 hits in 178 at bats) in 90 games. During this period, he won the Korean Series three times, earning him the nickname “King’s Catcher.”
It was in December 2018 that he became involved with his hometown team SSG. His first attempt at joining the team came when he was a student at Kyungsung University and his second attempt was in the first triangular trade between Samsung SK (currently SSG) and Nexen (currently Kiwoom) in the KBO League in the winter of 2018. At that time, SK sent Kim Dong-yeop to Samsung, Samsung sent Lee Ji-young to Nexen, and Nexen sent Ko Jong-wook to SK, making a surprise 1:1 trade. Since then, he has also played like Altoran at Kiwoom, recording a batting average of 0.280 (942 hits in 3368 times at bat), 368 RBIs and an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 0.654 in 1,270 games in the KBO League. In 2022, he led Kiwoom to the Korean Series as the main catcher and was recognized for his leadership, and it seemed that he no longer had anything to do with SSG.
“I don’t know how it feels to be back in my hometown. I never thought I would play baseball here. I left Incheon until high school and I was not nominated in college and I was tested to join the SK team before falling,” Lee said. “I’m scared and excited that I can finish where I first started. Still, I’m happy that I can play baseball, and I’m going to play my last baseball with joy.”
Rather than returning to his hometown team, he put more emphasis on the possibility of playing baseball again. Thinking about it, Lee Ji-young was the player who felt happier than anyone else at the many opportunities to play. In that sense, 2022 was special to Lee. While competing with Jin Gap-yong and Kang Min-ho during the Samsung Lions and Park Dong-won during the Kiwoom era, Lee Ji-young was the star in 2022. He recorded a batting average of 0.267, two homers and 37 RBIs, an OPS of 0.634 while playing in the most games (137) and the number of at-bats (450) in his career, and posted a career high in the fielding innings (994 ⅔). In recognition of his achievement, he marked his first career in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Last year, whenever reporters asked Lee because he was worried about his physical strength, he would say, “I rather like it. It’s better to run a lot.”
However, he couldn’t avoid the wind of generational change. Kiwoom had to prepare for the era of post-Lee Jung-hoo, and chose to give rookie catcher Kim Dong-heon experience instead of Lee Ji-young. He was excluded from the first team’s roster due to reasons other than injuries, with 81 games halved compared to the previous year, and only four games since August. Despite the generational change, it was not easy to accept for the main catcher who led the Korean Series to the runner-up 월카지노주소.
Lee Ji-young said, “I really enjoyed playing baseball in 2022, but I didn’t play much last year. There was a position where I had to raise a young player due to team (raising), and I couldn’t play naturally, but as a player, baseball wasn’t really fun. I didn’t think it was obvious (that regret was evident on the outside), but I think that was reflected on TV.”
The number of catchers with high uniform numbers didn’t matter much. He wore No. 56 throughout his career, but he added No. 59 in SSG. Since then, only top-tier catchers Cho Hyung-woo, Park Dae-on, and Shin Bum-soo have remained with Kim Min-sik. “I don’t give meaning to the original uniform numbers,” Lee Ji-young said. The uniform number that he wore when he was playing for Samsung as well, and the player who was wearing No. 56 in Kiwoom naturally wore it when he joined the military. “At SSG, (former) Ui-san wore No. 56, and I decided to add a new number to my new team to play with a new mindset because he seemed attached to his number,” he said.
“I have to get another opportunity. SSG would want me to upgrade my players as I compete for the starting lineup, and I plan to do the same. I have my body ready. The biggest question is how I play with new players with what I have prepared. If I ask younger players first, I will answer them and show them through actions rather than words,” he added.
Even in a new team, there is only one goal. To play in many games and contribute to the team’s performance. He expressed his gratitude to his Kiwoom teammates who expressed regret over his transfer. At the time of Lee Ji-young’s transfer, many Kiwoom players, including Ahn Woo-jin, expressed their regret through SNS.
“I’m really grateful that you like me that much. I had no choice but to go because my team had a situation,” Lee said. “I’m sad to leave like this because he followed me so much,” Lee said. “Players are always the happiest and happiest when they play a lot. When I went to Kiwoom and played half-and-half, I thought it was okay, but as I played a lot in 2022, I felt that I was the happiest when I played a lot on the ground. That’s why my goal is to play in the most games this year as well.”