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Orix’s Lee, Park hope to revitalize careers with fresh start

by Jason Coskrey

It feels like a lifetime has passed since Lee Seung Yeop and Park Chan Ho last wore the same uniform.

They were both stars then — Lee a hard-hitting slugger for the Yomiuri Giants and Park a pitcher for the San Diego Padres — joining forces under the South Korean flag at the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

So much has changed since then, as once-bright careers have dwindled to embers in need of a new spark.

When the Orix Buffaloes open spring camp Feb. 1 in Okinawa, the Korean stars will be in the same uniform once again, and together will take their first steps toward recapturing the past.

Suddenly Kansai’s second team has become the land of second chances.

The Buffaloes, coming off a fifth-place finish in the Pacific League, are banking on a Korean revival this season. One they hope to ride all the way up the PL standings.

The Buffaloes had good players last season, but were lacking production in key areas. They made a lot of moves over the winter, but the biggest impact may come from the alliance of two of the biggest stars in Korean baseball history.

If Lee and Park are able to recapture their vintage form, the Buffaloes should stand a good chance at competing for a spot in the Climax Series. The Buffaloes already have a big bat in 2010 home run leader Takahiro Okada, but with Alex Cabrera joining Tuffy Rhodes on the list of former Orix sluggers, the team could use more power.

That’s where Lee comes in.

Lee was once baseball royalty, South Korea’s “Lion King,” who, after a dynamic career with the Samsung Lions in the Korean Baseball Organization, helped the Chiba Lotte Marines win a Japan Series in 2005 and put up monster numbers for the Giants in 2007.

Since then, Lee has battled injuries and poor performance.

The bottom fell out in 2010, with his play at the plate and in the field forcing Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara to use him as little more than an expensive pinch hitter.

Anything resembling the Lee of old paired with Okada will make the Buffaloes lineup a force to be reckoned with, especially with Mistutaka Goto and Aarom Baldiris also lurking.

Park also arrives in Kobe with an impressive resume.

At 37 years old, he’s almost already done it all. He was a high school and college star in Korea before signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a 20-year old. He went on to compile a 124-98 record in 17 MLB seasons, making the 2001 All-Star team and pitching in the World Series in 2009.

Park, the winningest Asian pitcher in MLB history, wants to show the world he’s still got it and is prepared to using Japan as his proving ground.

The Orix staff already has a No. 1 pitcher in Chihiro Kaneko and a viable second option in Hiroshi Kisanuki. Park should slide into the rotation somewhere, alongside another reclamation project in Hayato Terahara, in hopes his presence can solidify the the pitching staff.

Lee is looking for a rebound while Park is set for a new beginning with one eye on old challenges.

As the next stage of their career begins, they’ve both got something to prove. Which is just what the Buffaloes are counting on.