Lee bids farewell to Tigers fans
When a fresh-faced Lee Jong-beom first appeared in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) wearing number seven 19 years ago, no one, not even the player himself, ever imagined he would change what a single player could do for his team and the league. On Saturday, the legendary batter and the number seven left the Kia Tigers for good.
“The Tigers are my heart. I will come back to the fans with the uniform on,” Lee said Saturday at his retirement ceremony at Mudeung Baseball Stadium in Gwangju, maybe hinting at a return in a non-playing role down the road.
“There are so many games flashing through my mind. Although there have been both good and bad times, I will never forget the support from the fans.”
More than 120,000 Tigers fans flocked to the stadium to witness one of the best franchise players walk away from the game in an emotional affair.
For Lee’s final game, the Tigers, 10-time Korea Series champions, put his picture and the message, “It was happy with you. Thank you, Lee Jong-beom,” on the tickets.
All the Tigers wore number seven as well as Lee’s name on their shirts to pay tribute to his great contribution and commitment to Korean baseball. Kia has now retired the number.
“It is just a nice feeling to watch all the players wear my uniform. I guess this is my teammates’ last present to me, which will be unforgettable. I heard that the team prepared this event for over a month. I really appreciate it,” Lee said in a media interview after the ceremony.
The 41-year-old leaves a significant mark in KBO history, appearing in 1,706 games, where he recorded 1,797 hits, 194 home runs, 730 RBIs and 510 stolen bases with a .297 batting average. In his second season in 1994, he took the MVP award with 196 hits, 84 stolen bases and .393 batting average, all of which were league-best records that year. During his time with the Haitai Tigers, they enjoyed their heyday winning the league in 1993, 1996, and 1997.
The tears Lee was holding back finally erupted when he handed his uniform to the Tigers’ general manager Kim Jo-ho, calling time on his 34-year career. The kit he gave Kim will be displayed at the Korea Baseball Hall of Fame in Jeju Island.
With so much affection attached to baseball, it seems he was unable to convey his feelings in one or two sentences. Instead of trying to describe how he felt, Lee gave a message to young players saying, “Always play with love for the fans and do it with the passion which will give you and your team honor later on. Most importantly, be a player who can touch the fans’ heart.”
Lee was then paraded around the ground, standing up through the sunroof while waving to fans. Fireworks were launched in a display of appreciation for what he has done for the club and the KBO.