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Super rookie poised to fill Lion King's void.

Super rookie Kang Baek-ho, 18, provides a breath of fresh air for the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) League after the legendary Lee Seung-yuop bade a tearful goodbye to baseball fans in October after the 2017 regular season.

Lee's departure has left a void to fill as the league has a drought of star athletes.

The former Samsung Lions slugger, who was called "Lion King" during his time, is one of Korea's greatest players of all time. He was known for his ceaseless efforts to improve his performance, even after he rose to the top of the league.

Kang, an emerging star, is poised to fill the gap left by the Lion King.

The rookie has rattled the KBO League since he made a dramatic debut with his opening game home run against Hector Noesi, the ace pitcher of last year's champion Kia Tigers.

Kang has already slammed four homers, rising second in RBI rankings. His uniform has the highest sales among KT Wiz fans.

Unlike Lee, Kang is a natural-born star, according to Yu Jung-min, the baseball program manager at Kang's alma mater Seoul High School.

"Baek-ho is not the type of player who would put extra time and energy into practicing to hone his baseball skills," he said.

Yu called Kang a born leader.

"When you look at kids, you could see who the leader is," he said. "There are children who are easily spotted because they take the initiative. There are also kids who keep a low profile. Baek-ho was the dominant kid. He got along with his teammates. He is optimistic and outgoing."

Yu said he knew Kang would adapt to the KBO League without difficulties because he's a gifted player. "To be honest with you, however, he has done a lot better than I had expected. I was surprised by his performance after he became a pro."

Jeon Yong-bae, a professor of Dankook University College of Sports Science, said Kang may outperform baseball legend Lee Seung-yuop and has strong potential to rewrite Korean baseball history.

"For players, the first year in the KBO League is really tough as you would see if you look at how Lee performed when he was a rookie. His first year in the KBO League was not smooth as he struggled to adjust," he said. "The way Kang plays in his first year in the league is something amazing. Everyone is wondering how the rookie, who just graduated from high school two months ago, can play like he is playing. I bet he will be a great player."

The Suwon-based Wiz, who finished last in the 10-club based KBO League for three straight years since they were elevated to the major league in 2015, had a slugger drought and was anxious for power hitters who could attract fans to the ballpark.

Earlier this year, the KT Wiz signed former Doosan Bears ace Dustin Nippert and Hwang Jae-gyun, who returned to the KBO league from a one-year stint in the U.S. Major Leagues.

The hero who lifted the Suwon-based club to popularity is neither the 2016 regular season MVP Nippert nor Major League returnee Hwang.

It's the 18-year-old rookie Kang.

Kang hit a three-run homer against seasoned Bears starter Jang Won-jun in the fourth inning when the Bears had an 8-0 lead. His homer gave a wakeup call to his teammates and later in the game the Wiz had an upset 20-8 win against the runner-up of last season.

The rookie has since become the most-talked-about baseball star.

Kia Tigers ace Yang Hyeon-jong spoke highly of Kang's talent. "I'm wondering how an 18-year-old rookie can swing like that. I don't believe what I just saw."

The KT Wiz has benefited from the rookie. KT Wiz Park has been enjoying a rare baseball boom. Baseball fans at the ballpark outnumber the average attendance at KBO games (13,590).

Suwon is a football city. During the premier K League season, the World Cup football stadium there is crowded with fans cheering for Suwon Samsung Bluewings.

Baseball may emerge as another popular sport as the super rookie Kang has spread the home run virus to his teammates.

The "Kang Baek-ho factor" seemed to have played out behind a noticeable increase of baseball fans in Suwon.

Some KT Wiz fans call him the savior of the baseball club. "Kang has led the KT Wiz to top the Doosan Bears," baseball fan Jung Soo-jin said.

Kang was raised in a baseball-loving family. His father is a huge baseball fan and he himself played baseball as an amateur. He would take his only child to the ballpark whenever he played baseball or watched games.

"Being exposed to such an environment, Baek-ho appeared to have been drawn into baseball and it has become a part of his life," Yu said. "I recognized his talent when I first met him four years ago when he was a first-year high school student. The way he moved and his swing were very different from boys his age. He was like a pro."

Unlike other rookies, Kang appeared not to be nervous at bat at all. He looked like he felt at home in the KBO League as if he has been playing there for years.

"He scares the players of opposing teams," said a baseball coach who asked not to be named, for he was not authorized to speak to the media about players of other teams. "Players and coaching staffs of opposing teams are nervous whenever he stands at bat. He is formidable. There's no doubt he's a great player."

Kang is part of the so-called "Beijing kids" cohort. It refers to a group of boys born in 1999 and 2000 who were inspired to play baseball while watching Korea clinching the gold medal in baseball at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Beijing kids have drawn the public's attention for they achieved remarkable accomplishments in baseball championships. Last September, for example, the youth national team consisting of Beijing kids came in second place, following the champion United States, at the 2017 U-18 Baseball World Cup held in Thunder Bay, Canada.

Baseball analyst Heo Gu-yeon said the Beijing kids seem to be better-trained than the players of any other generation.

"This year we have great baseball talent," he said. He praised Kang for his swing and hitting mechanics and said his understanding of baseball basics seems to be solid.

"In the 1992 season, we had the great rookie Kim Jae-yeon who joined the 20-20 Club. Later in the season, he was unable to produce more homers because of injuries," he said. "I think Kang has strong potential to be a slugger. He also seems to have the drive to win which is great."

Heo said Kang and other Beijing kids remind him of the rookies of the 1992 season that saw the four big pitchers_ namely Park Chan-ho, Cho Seong-min, Song Gyeong-soo and Lim Seon-dong. Park played in the Major Leagues, while Cho played in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball League.

Manager Yu said he is convinced the Beijing kids are more competitive than the players of other seasons.

"While watching Korea winning Olympic gold, more kids played baseball. An increase of baseball players made competitions fiercer and those who made the cut are stronger," he said. "It's a sort of race to the top. That's how the theory works."
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Publication:The Korea Times News (Seoul, Korea)
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Apr 5, 2018
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