With only 21 games left in the regular season, Lotte’s reality is not pretty. With a win-loss margin of -7 (58 wins, 65 losses) and 5.5 games behind fifth-place SSG, Lotte must cling to a slimmer and slimmer chance of making the postseason as the number of games remaining dwindles.
The more they do, the less “baseball life” Ahn Kwon-soo (30) has left. The third-generation Korean-American did not serve in the military, so he will no longer be able to play in South Korea after this season. Ahn has less than three weeks of baseball left, or less than two months if Lotte advances to the Korean Series.
“I want to do it with the mindset that the team can go to the postseason, no matter what,” he said when we met at Jamsil Stadium last month. Perhaps it’s because he’s held on to that “slim possibility” that he’s been able to make it this far in his baseball career.
○The KBO, which he thought was a straw man, became his club
After graduating from high school, Ahn Kwon-soo was not selected in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) draft. “There are a lot of ways to play baseball in Japan,” he recalls, “so I had to keep going. He continued to play baseball at Waseda University (where he dropped out), in independent leagues, and for social baseball teams, knocking on the door of the professional ranks. But after four years (2016-2019) of playing for unemployment teams, the level just below the professional ranks, the NPB door didn’t open.
Ahn contemplated retirement. “I wanted to continue playing baseball at a higher level, but there was nowhere else to go in Japan, so I thought I’d try out for the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), which is a higher level than the NPB, and is a pre-draft test for overseas amateur and professional players and high school and college dropouts,” he says.
Grasping at straws, Ahn went to the 2020 tryouts. Ahn was 100 percent sure he wouldn’t make the team. He had injured his side during the tryouts, so he was unable to take a live at-bat and didn’t even complete the base running test due to the pain.
Ahn’s parents still traveled to the draft, but his name wasn’t on the invitation list. Rookie draft invitations are rare, even for players who are certain to be drafted in the top round. The KBO keeps the invitation list as conservative as possible to prevent players from going home undrafted.
Nevertheless, Ahn’s parents intentionally timed their trip to South Korea to coincide with the draft. Ahn was selected by Doosan with the 99th overall pick in the second 10th round of the 2020 Rookie Draft. His father, Ahn Yong-chi, accepted his son’s jersey and said, “I was hoping he would be selected, but it really happened. It’s like a miracle happened.”
Ahn Kwon-soo’s secret to surviving in the first team: “Fighting
Ahn Kwon-soo, whose main role is to energize the batting lineup as a table-setter, was as much of a presence on the bench as he was at the plate. In both wins and losses, he was the loudest voice on the bench.
“I’ve been doing it since I was in Doosan,” he laughs, referring to his unique fighting spirit.
“I started as a backup player, so it wasn’t easy for me to go out there and do well in the middle, and the results weren’t good, so I was always going back and forth between the first and second teams. I thought, ‘How can I be in the first team,’ and they said, ‘Let’s just fight first,’ so I started. I think baseball can be good if you have a good atmosphere.”
Ahn Kwon-soo, who couldn’t understand a word of Korean when he first came to Korea, said, “It was very difficult at first. At that time, the club had a manager who was good at Japanese, but he couldn’t see me all the time, so honestly, even if I wanted to say something, I couldn’t do it well. I had to use hand gestures and foot gestures, but by the third year, I was able to communicate well in Korean. I think that’s why my baseball became better.”
But after his third season, his best since coming to Korea, he was at the crossroads of retirement again. Doosan decided to release Ahn, who could only play for one more year at most. Ahn thought, “I need to find something else to do,” and boarded a plane to Japan. Luckily, Lotte contacted him soon after. That’s how Ahn’s “real final season” began.
Surgery for over a month…back in action in less than two months
Ahn is the only active professional baseball player to have a YouTube channel. “During my time in Korea, I thought, ‘It would be interesting to post some videos,'” he says, “so I thought I’d do whatever I wanted to do since it was my last season.
He vowed to have no regrets this season. Ahn Kwon-soo spearheaded Lotte’s “April Madness. Primarily serving as the team’s No. 1 hitter, he energized the batting order with a .318 batting average in the opening month. Lotte finished April in first place and Ahn was named to the preliminary roster for the Hangzhou Asian Games. He even tasted a home run for the first time since his professional debut. But when asked to name his most unforgettable moment, Ahn chose “surgery” instead.
“It was very discouraging,” he said. He first felt the pain in his elbow on April 30, but he endured the pain for more than a month before undergoing surgery on June 8 to remove a piece of bone from his elbow.
“If I had (the rest of my baseball career), I would have had the surgery quickly and rehabilitated slowly, but I wasn’t in a position to do that. At first, I said I wasn’t going to have surgery, but after playing baseball for about a month, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t bat, I could only throw the ball about 10 meters, and later I couldn’t lift my arm at all.”
Eventually, Ahn underwent surgery. He returned on July 30, less than two months later. In the meantime, the team has fallen out of the top five and Ahn’s individual performance is in the top 10. He’d be lying if he said the rushed return didn’t have an impact.
“Originally, the doctor said it would take three months, but that would be September, and I didn’t have time…. I was just thinking, ‘I want to come back as soon as possible,’ even if it’s just for a day.”
Ahn Kwon-soo, who used to hit with one hand at the moment of impact before his surgery, switched to a two-handed mechanic after his right elbow gave out, but he hasn’t been able to find the right balance since.
“My elbow is still not 100%, so I’m still struggling with it. I usually hit with one hand, but I can’t do that, so I hit with both hands…” he pauses for a moment, then laughs embarrassedly, “It doesn’t work at all.”
In his final season, Ahn Kwon-soo, who said he wanted to “do everything I wanted to do,” had a bitter taste in his mouth, saying, “I tried my best to lift weights and work out during my career, but I think I was a little lacking.”
“Last year, I hit the fence (on July 3) after hitting for Doosan for more than three days, and it was an unavoidable injury, but after I came back, my batting average kept dropping. This year, I was doing well, but my elbow is hurting me. I think that’s all part of being a baseball player, because I’ve never played a full season, so I’m not good enough.”
Ahn Kwon-soo’s last wish: the postseason
Ahn’s final season is not the “happy ending” he had hoped for.
If his elbow hadn’t bothered him, he could have continued his strong start to the season, won a gold medal with the Asian Games team, resolved his military service issues, and continued his career in South Korea.
What’s more, his family had never seen him play baseball before. “When my family comes to the stadium, I’m like a ghost and I don’t get to start that day. The last time they came this year was on August 22 (at LG Electronics in Jamsil), but the game was canceled (due to rain) and…. My wife can’t see me play baseball anymore, so I don’t think there’s a chance (my family will come to Korea again).” 카지노
After this season, Ahn plans to return to Japan to look for a job. He has no intention of returning to the social baseball team he used to play for. He doesn’t see the point in continuing to play in a lower-level league without advancement.
“It’s true that I have regrets about baseball, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “I want my team to go to the postseason, and I don’t care about my individual performance anymore.”
Ahn Kwon-soo, who is struggling to regain his hitting touch, hasn’t started since the third inning against Doosan. Since then, he has been playing only as a catcher and pinch-hitter, and has only managed three runs in eight at-bats without a hit. It’s been a rough three weeks for Ahn and Lotte, who are desperate for a big turnaround.