During a wildly popular three-year tenure at the helm of the Lotte Giants, former manager Jerry Royster would sometimes muse on the fact that while he played an impressive 16 years in the Major Leagues, it wasn’t until he came to Korea that he got a chance to play golf with visiting former President George W. Bush and later, with Colin Powell. Royster said that would never have happened back home.
My own story of contrasts on either side of the Pacific is not quite as cool.
As a business reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner back in the late ‘90s during the dot.com boom, I never had the good fortune of getting a press pass to a San Francisco Giants baseball game. It wasn’t until the Lotte Giants granted me an all-access pass to write about the team from behind the scenes in 2011 that I would have the honor.
The one-sided Giants’ equation in my life was finally remedied on a trip back home this past summer, when my friend, and San Francisco Chronicle sports editor Al Saracevic, hooked me up with a press pass for game two of the four-game Bay Bridge Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s.
With the ascendance of Korean ballplayers in the Majors, including Shin-Soo Choo with the Rangers and standout pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu with the Dodgers, my intention was to find out what San Francisco players thought of the Korean style of baseball.
Granted, with none of the players I talked to having actually played in Korea, it was a pursuit of perception. But I was curious to get their take regardless – based on the Korean players they have competed against in the Major Leagues.
When I stepped into the clubhouse, three hours before the game, I made a beeline for possible future Hall of Famer, Tim Lincecum.
I asked the two-time Cy Young Award winner for his take on Korean ball, to which he responded, “To be honest, I don’t know which ones are the Korean baseball players.”
I then mentioned standout pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu.
Lincecum, whose nickname is “The Freak” for his less-than-traditional approach to both life and the game of baseball, suddenly perked up about the hot young pitcher who plays with the Giants’ bitter rival, the Dodgers.
“He attacks the zone a lot and he has a poise about him,” said Lincecum.
“I don’t know if that is indicative of the kind of baseball they play over there, but for a guy who made it over here at a young age, it speaks volumes to the way they go about baseball.”
“They are as prepared for the big leagues as any of the players that come out of Double-A or Triple-A, and I think that is a tribute to the brand of baseball that they play in their country.”
Former San Francisco Giants second baseman and seven-time Emmy Award-winning radio and television announcer Duane Kuiper echoed the sentiment.
“They are as prepared for the big leagues as any of the players that come out of Double-A or Triple-A, and I think that is a tribute to the brand of baseball that they play in their country,” said Kuiper.
Kuiper attributed this to what he believes is quality coaching here on the Korean peninsula.
“Somebody is teaching them the fundamentals, and someone is harping on them about how to play the game the right way. And judging by the people we’ve seen coming over from Korea, the ones that are in the big leagues, they (the coaches) are doing a good job.”
S.F. Giants’ pitcher Ryan Vogelsong pitched in Japan from 2007-2009. He summed up the style of baseball played in Japan and Korea as a “smaller game” with less focus on the long ball and more focus on baseball basics.
“The home run is not a big part of the game, it’s a smaller game,” said Vogelsong. “Guys are hitting the ball on the ground and trying to beat it out, a lot of bunting and a little more strategy involved. At the same time, it’s the same game of trying to score more runs than the other team.”
So, will we see more players from Korea and Japan on the roster of Major League teams in the future? According to Vogelsong, the quality is there, but demographics work against them.
“When I was there I felt like I saw guys that could play here,” said Vogelsong.
“Obviously it’s not as big as the United States, so the number of people you’re picking your talent from is obviously smaller…but there’s definitely guys that can play here and there are guys that have proven that.”
Photos by Bobby McGill