The 53-year-old who might pitch forever

Dae-Sung Koo debuted in 1993 and is still going today

February 7th, 2023

Dae-Sung Koo.

The name, particularly if you're a Mets fan, might be rolling over again and again in your head.

Dae-Sung Koo, that sounds familiar. Dae-Sung Koo ... he pitched, right? Dae-Sung Koo.

Oh yes, of course. Dae-Sung Koo.

"Yeah, when people look back on me, they kind of look back at that game especially," Dae-Sung Koo told me, through his interpreter son, Eric, in a recent Zoom call. "A lot of people do talk a lot about it."

Yes, when a left-handed relief pitcher crushes a double to center field off future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson in his second ever at-bat and then races home from second on a bunt, it's generally something worth talking about. A young David Wright completely lost his mind in the dugout. The moment is brought up routinely on social media once or twice or three times a year.

But after that 2005 season, his lone in the big leagues, Koo seemingly disappeared from the game. At least in America. After a 3.91 ERA and one wild baserunning ride, the Mets sold his contract back to the KBO. (It didn't help that his shoulder was injured on that day he slid into home.)

Then, just a few weeks ago -- nearly 18 years after that day in 2005 -- a video from the Australian Baseball League started picking up steam on Twitter. There he was again. Dae-Sung Koo. Pitching a perfect inning. At 53 years old.

"My left arm is still fresh," Koo said, laughing, surprised by the attention his performance attracted in the States.

But where had Mr. Koo been? And how did he wind up pitching on the other end of the globe in his mid-50s?

Well, it turned out that 2005 season with the Mets -- that amazingly magical moment with Randy Johnson -- was just a small midway point for the then 35-year-old. He had already starred for 11 years before it in Korea and Japan and, when he left the Mets, he didn't stop pitching. He couldn't stop. Instead, he took his talents back east to continue a long, winding baseball-playing journey straight out of a tall tales book.

The lefty first joined up with Team Korea for the inaugural World Baseball Classic in '06 -- helping his country get to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Japan. He allowed a total of one run in eight innings coming out of the bullpen, even getting a win against rival Japan in Round 1. Koo knew many of the Japanese hitters from a stint in the Pacific League from 2001-04 and had dominated the neighboring country in the 2000 Olympics. His success against them was so well-documented that his nickname became "Japan-killer."

"[The Classic] is a great event, a great competition for baseball enthusiasts," Koo said, reflecting back on his time in 2006. "It helps to spread the love of baseball and the role of baseball in society around the world.”

Post-Classic, Koo put up four more solid seasons for the KBO's Hanwha Eagles, the same team he pitched for at the very beginning of his career, compiling 64 saves and a 3.35 ERA. During his first eight years with the team, he was 61-57 with 150 saves and a 2.79 ERA. After "retiring" a KBO legend, he jumped continents once again, joining up with the Australian Baseball League.

Koo had originally moved to Sydney because his kids were going to school there but, while he was in town, he decided -- at age 40 -- that he might as well try out for the local Blue Sox team. He reportedly didn't ask for a contract, just that they allow him to pitch for two years. Koo continued his success Down Under and ended up posting a 2.15 ERA in five seasons, winning the league's Reliever of the Year award twice.

“It’s tough because he’s got all the deceptions," an opposing batter said. "And the ball comes from an angle behind his eyes – he can put the ball wherever he wants.”

At times, Koo showed some youthful fire at an age when most are long gone and retired from playing professionally.

Koo even joined up with the Aussie national team when they faced the Dodgers in an exhibition game at the Sydney Cricket Grounds in 2014. The mid-40-year-old's unusual windup and fabled changeup baffling hitters, just as it had done for decades before.

"[Koo] had a huge influence on my career," opposing Dodgers pitcher and fellow countryman Hyun Jin Ryu said at the time. "Not only that he taught me a pitch or two, but that he taught me a lot of different things as a mentor ... Everything from how to stand on the mound, to how to carry myself, to the etiquette of the game."

After his last season for the Blue Sox in 2015, Koo continued playing in some amateur leagues and eventually ended up a pitching coach for Sydney. Still, even though he had a bad back, he didn't rule out playing again. And when he became manager for new ABL team Geelong Korea for the 2018-19 season, he took the mound once again. He was 49.

"Most of my teammates were in their 20s or early 30s," Koo told me. "They were surprised at me coming back. It was unexpected."

Koo gave up a hit and a walk, but no runs in one inning of work.

Photo via SMP Images/Baseball Australia

Most figured that would likely be the last time the ageless Koo would appear on a professional mound. But in reality, for the next few years, he was biding his time and waiting for the next opportunity to get out on the diamond.

"If I ever got another chance, I was always practicing pitching during my free time," Koo told me. "In the park, just doing pitching throws."

This winter, Geelong Korea reached out to Koo and he immediately took them up on their offer. He appeared in three games, giving up zero earned runs and striking out two batters over 2 1/3 innings. He told me he's lost about 10 mph on his fastball -- it's sitting at around 75 mph -- but maybe, as he told the Korea JoongAng Daily, that helped.

"The ball was so slow that the batters didn’t seem to know what to do with it.”

Koo broke his own record as the oldest man to appear in an ABL game. He's now played professionally in four different decades, he's fired fastballs for four different leagues in four different countries and three separate continents. He's been toeing up rubbers for an incredible 30 years. It's reminiscent of Satchel Paige's extended swan song -- a pitcher Koo mimicked in high school.

He said he has no plans to pitch (or hit) in this year's WBC, although he'll be following Korea's progress through Pool B. Still, he seems dead-set on never fully retiring, saying, "I want to show that age is not the limit of your performance."

"My goal is pitch for as long as I can, wherever it is," Koo told me. "Whether it's here, Korea -- as long as I'm able to use my arm to do what I love."

Photo via SMP Images/Baseball Australia