Seattle Mariners

John McGrath: Lee’s inspiring backstory impresses more than numbers in a box score

Seattle’s Dae-Ho Lee, bats against Arizona on March 14 during a spring training baseball game in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Seattle’s Dae-Ho Lee, bats against Arizona on March 14 during a spring training baseball game in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Associated Press

Spring training box scores are as uninformative as spring training games. That a batter went 3 for 3 tells us little, because it’s likely one of the hits — and perhaps all three — were surrendered by a power pitcher tinkering with a secondary pitch, or a breaking-ball specialist working on fastball command.

Veteran position players with guaranteed starting jobs have been known to strike out on purpose during spring training, figuring the opponents will put the seemingly futile at-bat on file for a game that counts.

But for the past month, I’ve made it a point to check the box scores of Mariners exhibition games with the hope that Dae-Ho Lee did something at the plate to impress management. Lee has been competing for a roster spot as the right-handed hitting complement to Adam Lind in a first base platoon, and I want him to make the club because, for one, he’s got a cool nickname — “Big Boy” — and, for two, he brings a human-interest angle to a game that’s not overpopulated with humans whose lives are interesting.

Orphaned in South Korea as a 3-year-old — his father died, his mother was out of the picture — Lee was raised, along with an older brother, by his paternal grandmother. Money became an issue, which is to say there wasn’t any. What Lee did have was a talent for baseball, a sport he recognized as his salvation.

Known for his power in South Korea and Japan, Lee has hit only one home run this spring, and I was worried that a swing that consistently connected for 400-foot homers in Asia might be a tick slow against big league heat. But his agility in the field, and keen base-running instincts, have been a surprise.

Sunday loomed as a day of reckoning for Lee, whose contract contains an opt-out clause based on making the 25-man roster for next week’s opener. He hasn’t accomplished that yet, but his addition to the 40-man roster, announced Sunday, suggests that he’s passed the audition.

While earning the right to share a first-base platoon role with the Mariners is not the stuff of a Sports Illustrated cover, Lee holds revered-superstar status in South Korea. On Sunday, a blogger representing the “#56Lee Daeho FanClub” sent me a video of a visit by Lee to what appeared to be an elementary school assembly.

A student asks a question that draws giggles, and Lee responds with a 45-second answer that provokes laughs and applause. There is no English translation in the video, so I understand nothing, and yet I understand it all.

He’s telling her to believe in her dreams, because anything is possible.

The Mariners are a professional sports organization that must make roster decisions steeped in cost-effective potential. It doesn’t matter, and shouldn’t matter, if Dae-Ho Lee happens to be idolized by children on the other side of the world.

Can he hit big league pitching? If the Mariners believe he will, Lee earns $1 million, guaranteed. And should he hit hit big league pitching with more authority than he hit Cactus League pitching, he’ll stand to earn another $3 million in performance bonuses.

It’s a strict business proposition, no room for sentiment.

But to watch Lee interact with schoolkids in South Korea is to watch a natural-born goodwill ambassador. He gets it. He embraces his obligations as a role model.

A common retort to the notion of perceiving athletes as role models is that parents should serve as the role models. Yep, no question, none whatsoever, except for this one:

What about the kids who have no parents?

Dae-Ho Lee, bless him, is in their corner.

I want Lee to bash 30 homers this season, which will be difficult, if not impossible, for a right-handed hitting platoon player whose plate appearances will be restricted to matchups against left-handed pitching.

So I’ll ease up on any great expectations and settle for watching Big Boy’s red-carpet introduction at Safeco Field, a week from Friday, in the home opener.

The once impoverished South Korean orphan, determined to prove himself in America, is a wonderful story. I’ve got a suspicion the most compelling chapter awaits.

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