Top professional baseball clubs from Asia will compete for bragging rights in Korea this week, as the country prepares to host an annual tournament among continental league champions and All-Stars for the first time.
Sajik Stadium in Busan, about 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul, will serve as the venue for the Asia Series from Thursday to Sunday. This year, six clubs from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China and Australia will vie for 500 million won ($458,000) in championship prize money.
Japan and Taiwan previously staged the Asia Series, which began in 2005.
The Samsung Lions will represent the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) as the 2012 champions, along with the Busan-based Lotte Giants. The Lions in 2011 became the first KBO team to win the Asia Series and will try to become the first club ever to claim back-to-back titles.
Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), whose teams had won the Asia Series every year until 2011, will be represented by the Yomiuri Giants.
Australia will send the Perth Heat, the champion of the Australian Baseball League (ABL) in the 2011-12 season that ended in February this year. The Lamigo Monkeys will be the Taiwanese representatives as the champions of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL). The China Baseball League (CBL) will have an All-Star squad named the China Stars in action.
The six teams have been divided into two groups of three, and after round-robin play over three days, the top clubs from the two groups will meet in the final on Sunday.
There will be two games each day from Thursday to Saturday, starting at 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. The Sunday's final is set to begin at 2 p.m.
The Lions, the Stars and the Monkeys are in Group A. The Lotte Giants, the Yomiuri Giants and the Heat make up Group B.
Samsung and Yomiuri, two of the most storied franchises in the KBO and the NPB, could meet in the final. For the Lions' slugger Lee Seung-yeop, it would mean facing his old Japanese teammates.
Lee, who debuted with the Lions in 1995, left for Japan before the 2004 season and Yomiuri was one of three NPB teams that he played for until 2011. He had both his best and worst Japanese seasons with the Tokyo-based Giants.
In 2006, his first year with Yomiuri, Lee batted .323 with 41 home runs and 108 RBIs, all best marks in his Japanese career. In injury-plagued 2010, though, Lee was limited to 56 games and batted only .163 with five homers and 11 RBIs. He left the Giants the following year for the Orix Buffaloes and rejoined the Lions before the 2012 season.
Lee has said he doesn't have any special feelings toward playing Yomiuri and that the final between the two clubs "would only be an opportunity to meet some old teammates but nothing more."
The Lions recently won their sixth KBO title, five of which have come since 2002. Yomiuri captured its 22nd Japanese crown last week.
This tournament will be a homecoming for South Korean pitcher Koo Dae-sung, who will travel with the Heat.
Koo is under contract with another Australian team, the Sydney Blue Sox, but has joined the Heat as "a special guest" for the Asia Series. The Heat wanted to include the South Korean southpaw to help strength their pitching staff and raise the profile of baseball Down Under.
Koo, 43, made his KBO debut in 1993 with the Hanwha Eagles and has also pitched for the New York Mets in Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Orix BlueWave in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) from 2001 to 2004. Koo is the first South Korean to play in the KBO, MLB and NPB.
He retired from the KBO in 2010 and joined the Blue Sox for the 2010-11 season. This will be Koo's first appearance on home soil in two years.
The Lotte Giants, the KBO's most popular club in terms of home attendance, on Monday named Kim Si-jin as their new manager, filling the vacancy left by the resignation of Yang Seung-ho last week. The team said, however, that Kim will be inaugurated after the Asia Series and bench coach Kwon Doo-jo will serve as the interim manager during the tournament. Yang stepped down last week to take the fall for not taking the Giants to the Korean Series during his two seasons in Busan.
The Asia Series began in 2005 pitting champions from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and either an All-Star team or the league champion from China against each other.
Konami, a Japanese game company, sponsored the tournament from 2005 to 2008 but pulled out after 2008, citing declining interest.
In 2009, the KBO and the NPB held a single club championship match in Japan and the KBO, NPB and CPBL champions met in Taiwan the following year. These events were not called the Asia Series. (Yonhap)