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MVP award caps off Seo Geon-chang's improbable journey from baseball netherworld

All Headlines 15:30 November 18, 2014

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 18 (Yonhap) -- By winning his first Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) MVP award on Tuesday, Seo Geon-chang, the dynamic leadoff man for the Nexen Heroes, capped off an improbable journey from the baseball netherworld to its pinnacle.

Seo earned 77 of 99 possible votes cast by media to win the MVP in a landslide. During the regular season, he set new league records with 201 hits, 135 runs scored and 17 triples, while winning his first batting title with a .370 average.

It's hard to believe this is the same player who was struggling to hold on to a job in professional baseball just two years ago. Seo was an undrafted rookie who once went unrecognized by public relations managers of his own club in spring training. Now one of the league's premier hitting machines playing on an upstart title contender, Seo is an inspirational embodiment of hope and dreams for underdogs.

Seo made his KBO debut with the LG Twins in 2008, but had all of one at-bat during that season. He struck out.

He was released in August 2009, and did his two years of mandatory military service. Following his discharge, Seo, hoping to get another shot at the KBO, signed up for an open tryout for the Heroes.

He was one of only 20 participants to pass the test, and reported to the Heroes' spring training in 2012.

The virtual unknown infielder didn't even receive a proper number for the back of his uniform. Seo wore 111 during spring training, a number he later said he enjoyed wearing because "1" was his favorite number.

Seo got his break when Kim Min-sung, who'd been playing second and third, was injured before the start of the new season. Making a start at second base and batting ninth on the opening day in 2012, Seo hit a go-ahead two-run single against the Doosan Bears.

The rest has been history.

Seo hit, ran and fielded his way into the starting lineup. For the season, Seo appeared in 127 of 133 games, batting .266 with the league-leading 10 triples. He was second in the league with 39 steals, and eighth with 70 runs scored.

Seo was the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year honors and also captured the Golden Glove at second base. Though the latter award, despite its name, is usually presented to the best offensive player at a given position, Seo did flash leather with a good range.

A toe injury limited Seo to just 86 games in 2013, and he batted .266 for the second straight year while stealing 26 bases.

Seo came back with a vengeance in 2014. He started lifting weights with more earnest, and he also chose a heavier bat and changed his batting stance.

At the plate, Seo bends his knees inward and pulls his hands closer to his body than before. It's certainly not the prettiest of the stances, but it has paid huge dividends, by allowing him to turn on inside pitches better than a year ago.

Seo has hit with a remarkable consistency all season. He had 62 hits to left, 67 up the middle and 72 to right. He played all 128 games this year, and went hitless in just 21 of them. Only once did he fail to get a hit on back-to-back days.

Though Seo will never be known for his power, he finished fourth in the league in total bases with 297, ahead of four 30-homer sluggers. Seo was largely helped by his 41 doubles and 17 triples, both tops in the league. In triples, no one else even reached the double figures this year.

The KBO teams each played 128 games this year, compared to 162 in Major League Baseball and 144 in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball.

This year in the big leagues, only Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros (225) and Michael Brantley of the Cleveland Indians (200) had at least 200 hits. In Japan, Tetsuto Yamada of the Yakult Swallows had 193 hits to lead the NPB, but no other player had more than 190.

The KBO will expand from nine clubs to 10 clubs next year and they will each play 144 games. Still in his athletic prime with a good work ethic to boot, Seo just might break his own offensive records in 2015.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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