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(LEAD) S. Korea's premier contact hitter bids adieu after 20-year pro baseball career

All Headlines 18:02 November 25, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with comments; ADDS new photo)

SEOUL, Nov. 25 (Yonhap) -- Lee Byung-kyu, one of the premier contact hitters in South Korean baseball, has decided to hang up his glove, his club announced Friday.

The LG Twins in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) said that Lee, 42, notified the club Thursday that he will end his 20-year pro baseball career.

Lee's three-year contract ends this year. However, the Twins didn't make a bold move to hold their star player.

Lee said he had thought a lot about his future before announcing his retirement.

"I really didn't think about retiring because I always wanted to play," Lee told reporters after making a farewell visit to the club office at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Friday. "I didn't want to fight against the club. I just don't like to squabble on the negotiation table and I thought that's not good news to the fans."

Lee could have talked with other clubs to extend his career, but the Twins were his priority.

"It would be a lie if I said I hadn't imagined playing for other clubs," he said. "But my only answer was the Twins. I think it's right to end this way."

South Korean baseball player Lee Byung-kyu, who has decided to end his 20-year pro baseball career, speaks to reporters after making his farewell visit to LG Twins officials at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Nov. 25, 2016. (Yonhap)

Lee has been a longtime Twins man, joining the Seoul-based club in 1997. Excluding his three-year stint at the Japanese club Chunichi Dragons from 2007 to 2009, Lee has only played with the Twins.

Over his 17 seasons in the KBO, Lee hit 161 homers out of 2,043 hits, along with a .311 batting average, 972 RBIs and 992 runs scored in 1,741 games. He earned his 2,000th hit in just 1,653 games, the fastest among all players.

Best known for his contact ability, Lee won two batting titles and topped the league in hits four times. He struck out just 838 times in 6,571 at-bats.

Lee also has seven Golden Gloves -- six as an outfielder and one as a designated hitter. In the KBO, a Golden Glove is awarded to the best player in each position. His other awards include the Rookie of the Year title in 1997 and the All-Star Game MVP in 2011.

The lefty hitter represented South Korea in four Asian Games and collected two gold, one silver and one bronze medals. He also played for the national team at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games and the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

Lee showed a mediocre performance in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), but after his return to the KBO, the veteran showed he wasn't rusty. In 2013, he became the oldest player to take the batting title after finishing the season with a .348 batting average. In the same year, he also became the oldest player to hit for the cycle at age 38.

"When I came back from Japan, I made up my mind that if I can't play better than my young teammates, I would retire," he said. "But honestly, still at this moment, I'm confident that I can perform better than anyone."

However, Lee's numbers declined sharply starting in 2014 following a string of injuries, while manager Yang Sang-moon called for a generation shift, allowing young teammates to play more games.

This year, Lee spent almost the entire time in the minors and had just one plate appearance as a pinch hitter. However, he brought nostalgia to fans when he appeared in the Twins' final game of the season.

Lee hit a single off Doosan Bears ace pitcher Dustin Nippert, who was later named the 2016 KBO MVP, and rocked the Twins fans at Jamsil Baseball Stadium on Oct. 8. However, nobody knew that was going to be Lee's final at-bat in a Twins uniform except himself.

"To be honest, I felt at that moment this could be the last at-bat of my career," he said. "I felt numb after I thought I would never stand up here again."

Lee said he feels bad that he wasn't given many opportunities to play games in recent years.

"I really worked hard to show that age is just a number," he said. "But I realized that confidence doesn't fix every situation. That's why I had some regrets left."

Lee said he feels sorry to the fans for not leading the Twins to the championship title. The Twins last won the KBO championship in 1994.

Lee said he wants to return to the Twins as a coach to help his young teammates. But for now, he will take time off from baseball and the Twins.

"The Twins are like my family," he said. "But from now on, I want to spend good time with my real family."

In this undated photo provided by the LG Twins, South Korean baseball player Lee Byung-kyu waves to fans to show his respect during a Korea Baseball Organization game. (Yonhap)

kdon@yna.co.kr
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