The Washington, D.C., area lost a baseball icon with the Jan. 19 passing of Montgomery College pitching coach Duck Lee, who spent the better part of the past five decades promoting the sport he loved as an administrator and coach in his adopted country.
“He was a good friend to me,” Raptors baseball coach Dan Rascher said. “He cared about me not as a coach but as a person, and he cared about my family. That's the thing I really appreciated about him. As far as baseball, (Lee felt) that there was a place out on the field for everybody somewhere. If you had respect for the game ... he welcomed you with open arms.
“He was a security blanket with all the knowledge he possessed. We often discussed things, and he gave me his opinion, and whether I used it or not, he left that up to me. He never said, 'I told you so.' He let me coach. That's one thing I really respect about him.”
Lee, who was 77 at the time of his passing, was born in Manchuria, China, in 1935 and later left the country toward the end of World War II to go to Seoul, Korea, where his family prospered before the city was overrun by North Korean forces in 1950. But it was also in Korea where Lee learned the generosity of the United States military, including the U.S. Marines. He served as a translator for the force in Korea. That generosity caused a deep respect for the United States.
“Duck liked to eat a lot, and I asked him about it and he said, `John, I starved a lot (in Korea),” said Montgomery College assistant head coach John Silk, who gave the eulogy at Lee's funeral. “He vowed if he ever got out of that situation, he would never go hungry again. He used to tell me stories when he was in Korea as a young boy, such as his love for the USA, especially the Marines and the love for our soldiers. American soldiers gave them food, and he would hide it under his shirt from the communists. He had an affinity for this country. He was so grateful for the U.S. and the soldiers who helped protect him. He was so grateful for the American soldiers who shed their blood so we could be free.”
The North Korean invasion ended Lee's hopes for playing high school baseball — he was a freshman when the invasion took place — but that didn't stop the long-time Montgomery College coach from furthering the cause of numerous aspiring ballplayers throughout the years, including serving as the vice president of the Industrial League, a precursor to collegiate circuits such as the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, that boasted both college and former professional players among its ranks for four decades beginning in the 1960s.
“He brought a Korean team into the Industrial League in the middle or early '60s, and it lasted about a year. His team didn't have the sponsorships,” said former Industrial League president Charles Blackburn, who is now the executive director of the National Amateur Baseball Federation. “I recognized that he really did love the game of baseball. I suggested he help run the Industrial Baseball League. Eventually he helped run the league over the years.
“He was a very high integrity guy. Once he decided he was going to do something or serve on a committee, he was one of those guys who would see it right through to the end, (but) he preferred coaching young ballplayers. He ended up helping out with the Montgomery County team. He had a love for that.”
Along the way, Lee, who pitched batting practice up until shortly before his death, served as a Senior Advisor to the Los Angeles Dodgers and as a Supervisor to the Boston Red Sox for Korea, and he was instrumental in arranging games between Korean national and Olympic teams with squads in the Washington Industrial League from 1975-1994. Lee, who spent five years as Gaithersburg Post 295's pitching coach, also took a team of Industrial League All-Stars to the White House as part of a national Amateur Baseball Month celebration.
“I remember when he went back to Korea to meet his wife to be,” Blackburn said. “His mother and father had selected three possibilities for a wife. He was going over there to interview them. I asked him what he was looking for and he said, `She must love baseball.' It tickled me. He said, `I'm going to ask very pertinent questions to make sure they understand the game. I'm going to ask one of them what is the hit and run.'
“He was kidding a little bit about it, but he didn't want to marry anyone who didn't appreciate baseball.”
Lee's love of baseball can be seen in his attention to detail — he carried a plastic milk carton to the field everyday filled with tape, string, scissors, glove oil and a lighter for field, glove and other equipment repair — through the many relationships he made with players and coaches alike, including former Montgomery College pitcher and pitching coach Pat Skellchock, whose fondest memory was of watching the then 64-year-old Lee complete a three-up, three-down inning as a pitcher in one of Montgomery College's fall league games when the squad ran out of pitchers.
“The way he referenced stuff to the pitches, that stuff sticks in my head today that I tell my pitchers at Whitman,” said Skellchock, who is the pitching coach at Walt Whitman. “Duck was always positive. I try to be that way. He was a very fine man, (and) he knew the game. He was a great influence on me as a young pitching coach. He'll live forever in my baseball world.”
Lee, who was laid to rest in Montgomery College apparel, also spent the last four years on the staff of Jeff Rabberman's Gaithersburg Giants squad, which played in the Maryland Collegiate Baseball League. Rabberman, whose team is now in the Cal Ripken League, said he hopes to honor Lee during one game this summer, especially after the outpouring of love and respect for Lee that was displayed by his players when informed of Lee's rapidly failing health just prior to his death.
“He always said the perfect thing at the right time,” Rabberman said. “I'm going to miss the guy. It's been a hard week-and-a-half. The summer time, it's really, really going to be hard. He was a man of honor.”