When a 33-year-old baseball player agrees to a minor-league contract, with the hope of starting at first base against left-handed pitchers, it is not a development that requires television networks to interrupt their regularly scheduled programming.
But I’m getting the sense that the Mariners’ acquisition of Dae-Ho Lee is a bigger story than you think, if for no other reason than everything about the man nicknamed “Big Boy” is big.
His swing is big and his smile is big and his list of accomplishments is big and his heart is big. (Orphaned as a teenager, he takes a hands-on approach to charitable causes.) And then there’s that physique, big to the extent of huge: Listed last season at 6-feet-4 and 286 pounds, Lee looks more like an NFL nose tackle than the hitter who has dominated the top pro baseball leagues in both South Korea and Japan.
Upon replacing Jack Zduriencik last October, general manager Jerry Dipoto wasted no time making the Mariners, as he put it, “more athletic,” a diplomatic way to describe the purging of some players from the roster whose talents were not distinguished by running, fielding or throwing. Convinced that his team is better suited for Safeco Field, Dipoto was able to land the kind of free agent who, at first glance, is Zduriencik’s kind of free agent: A right-handed hitter capable of launching towering home runs while not doing much else.
Despite his size, Lee exercises strike-zone discipline unusual for a power hitter, which is consistent with Dipoto’s often-repeated ambition for the Mariners to “own the zone.” Lee’s pitch-recognition skill explains why somebody who set a world-professional record by hitting home runs in nine consecutive games — the record was eight, co-owned by Ken Griffey Jr. — also won three batting championships and a pair of Triple Crowns with South Korea’s Lotte Giants.
So what convinced Big Boy to agree to a deal that amounts to a nonbinding tryout at spring training? Seems the 2015 MVP of Japan’s version of the World Series pretty much had exhausted goals to challenge him in Asia, where his 2012 transition from South Korea to Japan was successful but stressful. (The Japanese language is as different from Korean as English is.)
An elementary school teammate of former Mariners outfielder Shin-Shoo Choo, Lee, who turns 34 in June, realized the clock is ticking on realizing his aspirations to play in the major leagues. And though his best-case scenario for 2016 will find him renouncing a potential Japan League contract worth perhaps twice as much as the $4 million he’ll collect by achieving incentives set by the Mariners, money is not the issue.
The issue is excelling at baseball’s highest level, an ambition likely planted when Lee helped South Korea win the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. (Team USA, armed with such starting pitchers as Stephen Strasburg and Jake Arrieta, returned home with the bronze.)
“I decided it was now or never, considering my age,” Lee said a few months ago during the press conference arranged to publicize his availability to big-league teams in the U.S.
But there was no clamoring for his bat, and Big Boy had to settle for a minor-league deal with a Mariners team that plans on Nelson Cruz as its primary designated hitter and the left-handed-swinging Adam Lind sharing a platoon role at first base.
First dibs at such a role, we presumed, belonged to Jesus Montero. His 2015 reconfiguration from clueless, carefree bust in Seattle to diligent PCL star in Tacoma rated among the feel-good stories for an organization that had fewer feel-good stories than shared by an estranged couple reunited on the set of the “Jerry Springer Show.”
The door hasn’t closed on Montero, but if Lee shows up for spring training and reveals anything close to the hit-to-all-fields power he did in South Korea and Japan, the Mariners will break camp with a first-base platoon of Lind and Lee.
Calling for Mariners fans to shout “Hallelujah!” seems like an excessive response to potentially solving the modest quandary of a first-base platoon, but there’s something about Lee that identifies him as the surprise acquisition of a frantic offseason.
Suspicion is warranted: Can he get his bat around on the 95 mph fastballs he’ll see this spring? Consistent velocity, amped up once late-inning relievers are summoned, is the difference between major league pitching and the pitching Lee faced in South Korea and Japan.
And yet ...
As I watch a video loop of his home-run swings, what stands out — aside from the sound of a marching band’s horn section blaring from the bleachers — is the opposite-field power. He raises his left foot, connects on a pitch thrown in the vicinity of his knees, and the ball travels 350 feet down the right-field line.
After the obligatory reaction shot showing a pitcher behaving as if he’s just put his No. 16 tee shot through the living-room window of the condo adjacent to the 16th tee, Lee can be seen running — OK, waddling — around the base paths. There’s a slight, subtle smile on his face, but he’s not gloating. He’s happy.
Another video depicts Lee off the field, a gentle giant mingling with fans. I’m not fond of the word “charisma,” because what I find to be charismatic about somebody could be what you find to be insufferable.
But the word applies to Big Boy, coming to America thanks to an under-the-radar deal that might be recalled as the most inspired, if not biggest, Dipoto move of all.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org