Excuse me while I get nostalgic and recognize White Sox legend Man Soo Lee.
OK, he might not be a legend to everyone, but for anyone who was born between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s and frequented the left field bleachers at Comiskey Park/U.S. Cellular Field between 2000 and 2006, you probably know of Man Soo Lee. In fact, there’s a good chance he threw you a baseball at some point.
Man Soo Lee – or Lee Man-soo in his native South Korea – was the White Sox' bullpen catcher from 2000-06. He has a World Series ring to his name and was one of the most fun-loving members of the 2005 White Sox.
Why am I writing about some random bullpen catcher? Well, it starts with Lee being briefly shown on the television broadcast of the May 8, 2005 White Sox-Blue Jays game that was replayed Monday on NBC Sports Chicago as part of our #SoxRewind series.
Just that quick shot of Man Soo Lee brought back some great memories of being at the ballpark. Like many young baseball fans, I was the type of kid who loved to get to games super early for batting practice. I would camp out in a perfect spot in the front row next to the White Sox bullpen, which meant Lee was close by, usually shagging fly balls.
And he was very generous with those baseballs.
Lee’s English wasn’t perfect, but he could still communicate with fans and was always goofing around. It might take a quick game of rock-paper-scissors to get a ball from him.
Lee came to recognize the fans he saw often, and that included me. I’d see him on the road in Minneapolis or Kansas City and he’d come by the stands, thank me for making the trip and usually drop me a ball.
Today, working as a reporter, that type of interaction doesn’t seem like a big deal. But back then, as a young teenager, the bullpen catcher knowing your name was one of the coolest things in the world.
And I know I’m not the only one who still appreciates Man Soo Lee’s relationship with the fans. Just in sending out that tweet on Monday, I received similar sentiments in response:
I got an autographed baseball by him somewhere. Great moment of my life— Luke Marzano (@Marz4215) April 6, 2020
I was at the Last Home Game of the 2004 Season. Lee was catching in the Bullpen and came over to chat with Me and My Friend. He told Us that Next Year they would win it all. Who knew He could see the future?— Choco-Taco (@Basindrive) April 6, 2020
One of my favorite spring training memories was talking Man Soo. He was such a fun personality cutting up with fans from the bullpen. Great ambassador for baseball.— Kevin McAbee (@KevMcabee) April 7, 2020
Sadly, in doing some research for this piece, I came to find out that while Lee always looked like he was having so much fun, his time in Chicago wasn’t easy on his family.
"It was a very tough time. Nobody understood my English although I studied it quite hard in Korea,” Lee told the Korea Times in December. “Racial discrimination was also bad, especially in the minor leagues. In the Major League, it was much better. Players were more relaxed."
The thing is, Man Soo Lee is an actual baseball legend in Korea. He was one of the first stars of the Korea Baseball Organization and pulled off the Triple Crown in 1984, leading the league in home runs, RBIs and batting average.
But in that same Korea Times story, he said he wasn’t prepared for being a nobody in the United States and spoke of the “meaninglessness” of his fame. The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s also made things tough. It’s not like bullpen catchers make a lot of money, even in Major League Baseball.
"We didn't have money,” he said. “We ordered one drink at Starbucks and shared it between (my wife and two sons). Chicago is very cold and one night we lost electricity. To save money, we stayed home under one blanket. It was a really tough time, but I got to spend lots of time with my boys and did many things with my family."
Lee went back to South Korea in 2006 and eventually became manager of the SK Wyverns. Today, he’s helping develop baseball in the country of Laos, teaching the game to underprivileged children.
And hopefully he knows he had a strong impact on young baseball fans during his time in Chicago, too.
The White Sox-Rangers game from May 17, 2005 will air Thursday at 4 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago. For the full White Sox Rewind schedule from the 2005 season, click here.