By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Nov. 19 (Yonhap) -- Doosan Bears' outfielder Kim Jae-hwan, freshly minted as MVP of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) on Monday, is the classic late bloomer -- a former catching prospect who didn't get regular playing time until 2016 at 28.
At his lowest point, Kim even contemplated quitting baseball. But once he got his opportunity, Kim pounced on it, with a combination of his natural talent and work ethic carrying him to dizzying heights.
Now 30 and still very much in his prime, Kim also got his validation with the highest individual honor in the country's top professional league.
Kim earned 51 out of the 111 first-place votes cast by media for 487 points, beating his teammate, right-hander Josh Lindblom, by 125 points.
Only three years ago, Kim played in 48 of the club's 144 games, and none after Aug. 13. He batted .235 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs. And in a testament to just how unproductive Kim had been in his four previous seasons, those meager home run and RBI totals were his career highs.
In 2018, Kim enjoyed a monstrous season at the plate. Kim led the KBO with 44 home runs and 133 RBIs -- both new career highs and franchise records. Kim also led the league with 346 total bases, while ranking second in slugging percentage with .657 and on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) with 1.062.
A full decade after getting drafted out of high school as a catcher, Kim has evolved into one of the KBO's most feared sluggers. That he plays his home games at Jamsil Stadium -- only the KBO's largest and least hitter-friendly park -- makes his monstrous numbers even more impressive.
And because the Bears share Jamsil with the LG Twins, this means Doosan players like Kim play eight "road games" at the Seoul venue, in addition to their 72 home games there.
Looking back on his humble beginnings, Kim said he just wasn't ready to be a professional ball player in 2008.
"I had so much help from my manager and coaches, but I was too immature at the time to make the most of it," Kim said. "I don't think I was prepared mentally, either. I don't think I would have won this award without those people along the way."
The one blemish on Kim's resume has been his positive doping test from 2011. He was suspended for 10 games for the 2012 season. And though seven years have passed since the case and Kim has already served his penalty, the player's detractors have continued to heckle him -- both at stadiums and in cyberspace -- and have claimed Kim was still enjoying effects of performance enhancing drugs.
Kim said having to play through those critical views over the past three years, just as he was emerging as an MVP-type player, has been the toughest part of his career.
"Not a day goes by when I don't regret the choice I made then," Kim said. "And that's why I think it's really important for me to stay on the right path and keep doing the best I can the rest of my career."
Kim said he has learned to live with criticism directed at him and added, "It all comes with the territory, given the mistake I made."
"It's not necessarily something that I thought I had to overcome," Kim added. "I knew there was enough noise out there that I couldn't just ignore it. But I've also tried to focus on doing the right things and leading an exemplary life on and off the field."
Kim's breakout season came in 2016, when he launched 37 homers and knocked in 124 runs while batting .325. He had 35 homers and 115 RBIs in 2017, and raised his batting average to .340.
And with his infant twins having entered the picture before the 2016 season, Kim said he thought about quitting baseball and picking up another job because he didn't think playing ball would be the best way to feed his family.
He decided against it and instead put all his chips into trying to make it again. He began working out on Mondays, the designated off-day in the KBO, and he has stuck to the same routine since.
"I started doing that because at least for one season, I wanted to keep my head down and do nothing but play baseball as hard as possible," Kim said. "I think that has led to some good results on the field, and that's why I've kept the same program."