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Returning stars, new faces tasked with helping KBO return to prominence

In this file photo from March 22, 2022, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the Doosan Bears during the top of the first inning of a Korea Baseball Organization preseason game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)
In this file photo from March 22, 2022, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the Doosan Bears during the top of the first inning of a Korea Baseball Organization preseason game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

It would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, but professional baseball is fighting to regain relevance in the national sporting landscape.

From declining television ratings to discouraging poll numbers, there is plenty of evidence that suggests the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) isn't what it used to be: the undisputed king of professional sports in the country.

TV ratings dropped so precipitously that the four cable networks with KBO rights even demanded the league office and 10 clubs that they be compensated for lost advertising revenues. It was no longer unusual to see women's volleyball matches outdraw KBO games on cable and online streaming platforms.

Having several star players suspended for violating social distancing protocols last summer further compounded problems. And then the national team, made up entirely of KBO players, finished a disappointing fourth at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in August, turning even more fans away from baseball.

As it marks its 40th anniversary, the KBO will turn its weary eyes to household names who have returned from Major League Baseball (MLB) and also former MLB stars trying to revive their careers.

Left-handers Yang Hyeon-jong and Kim Kwang-hyun both ended their major league stints this offseason to reunite with their former KBO teams. Yang had a brief, one-season run with the Texas Rangers last year and rejoined the Kia Tigers in December on a four-year contract worth up to 10.3 billion won ($8.5 million). Kim inked a four-year contract with the SSG Landers earlier this month for 15.1 billion won, the most in league history.

Yang had spent the first 14 seasons of his KBO career with the Tigers, from 2007 to 2020. He won both the regular season MVP and Korean Series MVP awards in 2017. While with the Rangers, Yang bounced between the big leagues and the minors, failing to record a victory anywhere while posting an identical 5.60 ERA at both levels.

Kim pitched for the SK Wyverns, the previous incarnation of the Landers under a different ownership, from 2007 to 2019. The 2008 regular season MVP helped the Wyverns to four Korean Series titles.

Kim signed a two-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals in late 2019 and went 10-7 with a 2.97 ERA in 35 games, including 28 starts, from 2020 to 2021, before hitting free agency.

The two had been among the league's very best starters before heading overseas. That they are back with the only franchises they had known in their KBO careers should generate excitement in those fan bases. Both the Landers and the Tigers missed the postseason in 2021 but made other significant moves over the winter to make a playoff push this season.

And they didn't disappoint in the preseason. Yang pitched to a 1.42 ERA in three exhibition starts, giving up just two earned runs in 12 2/3 innings while striking out 15 and walking one.

Kim, who was behind schedule in spring training, as he only signed his contract in early March, made two preseason appearances. He allowed one run in five innings for a 1.80 ERA, and struck out eight and issued one walk.

Other teams kept busy with international signings, and the Kiwoom Heroes made the biggest splash with their acquisition of the former National League All-Star Yasiel Puig.

Puig is already a familiar figure among South Korean fans for having been teammates with South Korean star Ryu Hyun-jin on the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cuban outfielder, nicknamed "Wild Horse," also brings some baggage as someone known to be a petulant teammate with work ethic problems. Puig also faced sexual assault allegations in the United States before reaching settlements.

The Heroes are counting on Puig to behave himself, at least for one season, if only to give himself a shot at returning to the majors. At the top of his game, Puig will be as exciting to watch as any player in the KBO.

Puig didn't live up to hype in the preseason, though, as he batted only .182/.206/.212 with zero home runs in 14 games.

In the Landers' starting rotation, Kim Kwang-hyun is joining former New York Yankees ace Ivan Nova. The Dominican right-hander won 90 games in the big leagues, including 16 in pinstripes in 2011. With Kim, Nova and another ex-big leaguer, Wilmer Font, the Landers should have one of the league's top rotations.

The preseason also saw the emergence of exciting young players.

The Tigers' 18-year-old rookie Kim Do-young arrived at his first spring training under high expectations, and he somehow met them by leading the league with a .432 average and 19 hits, and tying for second with three steals.

LG Twins' utility man Song Chan-eui had the most surprising power surge, leading the KBO with six home runs and coming in at second place with 10 RBIs. The 23-year-old was drafted in 2017 but got his first extended opportunity to crack the KBO roster this month. His dream will likely come true when the regular season begins Saturday.

The league will bid adieu to one of its most important stars at the end of the season.

Lotte Giants' slugger Lee Dae-ho has said this will be his final season. The 39-year-old made his KBO debut in 2001 and has been with the Giants throughout his career in South Korea. He has also played for the Orix Buffaloes and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan, and for the Seattle Mariners in the majors.

The KBO said earlier in March its clubs will jointly organize a retirement tour for Lee, only the second of its kind in league history after Lee Seung-yuop, the all-time KBO home run king, was feted throughout his final season in 2017.

Details of Lee Dae-ho's farewell tour will be released later. It will likely involve clubs presenting Lee with gifts during the Giants' final series in their cities and will culminate in a formal ceremony for the Giants franchise icon during their final regular season home series in Busan. (Yonhap)

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