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THE HOT CORNER: Bong & Lee step back in time

by Jim Allen (Feb 5, 2009)

It might not have been the day the Earth stood still, but South Korea lefty Bong Jung Kuen will never forget that game at Tokyo Dome in March 2006.

With his country trailing Japan 2-0 in the fourth inning of their first World Baseball Classic confrontation, Bong came to the mound with runners on second and third and one out.

With the infield in, Bong got a grounder to short and an out at the plate, but then walked Ichiro Suzuki on five pitches to load the bases. With switch-hitter Tsuyoshi Nishioka batting right-handed, Bong pitched him away. Nishioka sliced a liner toward the right-field corner that sailed away from right fielder Lee Jin Young.

"When I see it leave the bat, I jump up," Bong recalled Tuesday at Tokyo Dome ahead of this year's World Baseball Classic. "I see Lee going and going and going, still going."

Nishioka's drive should have made it 5-0, but Lee made a diving, tumbling catch that instead ended the threat with no more damage. South Korea scored in the next inning and won it 3-2 on Lee Seung Yeop's two-run homer.

Afterward, Bong was so grateful he told the right fielder that he could have anything he wanted.

According to Bong, who was then with the Cincinnati Reds, Lee wanted three things: Two Rawlings gloves from America--and a Japanese girl.

Bong didn't provide any further details about the third wish. One hoped Lee would confirm or deny the accuracy of Bong's recollection, but since the team interpreter balked at translating the question, we may never know.

One look might lead one to believe Lee's most fervent desire would have been for a year's supply of beef. Once a slender speedster, Lee has bulked up, looking more the part of a slugging No. 3 hitter.

"I think it's just my body filling out naturally. Three years is a long time. This just happens as you get older," the 28-year-old said.

Could Lee repeat that play in the coming two weeks?

"No way," Bong said. "He told me, 'Don't expect me to make that catch again.'"

Lee who has played at Tokyo Dome in two Asia Series since his fateful catch in 2006, said he had thought of coming to Japan as a free agent. But lacking any good offers, he left the two-time defending Korean champions, the SK Wyverns, for the LG Twins as a free agent.

"I'm happy because I have a lot of friends there," Lee said of the move that also reunited him with WBC teammate Bong.

Bong, who wears No. 51 because his favorite player as a teenager was Suzuki, also counts a Japanese pitcher as a friend. While with the Double-A Greenville (S.C.) Braves in 2002, he roomed with right-hander Kazuhiro Takeoka.

"We were sitting there looking at each other," Bong said. "It was like, 'What are we going to do?' I didn't speak any Japanese, he didn't any speak Korean, and neither of us spoke much English."

Takeoka never made it to the majors and returned to Japan as the eighth-round draft choice of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. Bong, however, made his major league debut in a 2002 loss against Arizona Diamondbacks ace Curt Schilling.

He pitched 44 more games for the Atlanta Braves the following season and was in Cincinnati in 2004. Injury, however, curtailed his career in the States.

"I was rehabbing in Cincinnati when a team in Korea said they were interested," Bong said. "So I asked Cincinnati for my release, and they said OK."

Bong, who finished third in the league in ERA last season, said it was a tough adjustment.

"My first year back was really lousy," he said. "It's a lot harder there [in South Korea]. They don't chase pitches. [In the majors] there are so many aggressive hitters who swing at everything."

If things go as he and his teammates hope in Tokyo, Bong will get more cracks at major league hitters when the WBC's second round opens in San Diego on March 15. After being knocked out of the semifinals by Japan three years ago, Lee said there is only one target in mind.

"We have a younger team this time, but I think we are stronger," he said. "We all feel the disappointment from 2006, we have to go further this time."


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