Life of the Import Superstar
From the clubhouse, the anticipation slowly builds as game time nears. The summer is coming to an end, and it’s make or break time. All the years of hard work have paid off – your athletic dream has become reality. One pitch, one swing, one call could propel your team into the playoffs. As you slowly walk on to the field, you can hear the thousands of fans screaming your name in unison, and it’s time to play ball.
Kimchi and Baseball
It is not unusual for childhood dreams to morph or even dissipate into the guiltless air as age and responsibility unveil a different reality. However, for more and more journeyman professional baseball players, Asia is becoming a viable option for them to hone their craft. Enter the Lotte Giants and the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO).
First year Giants closer John Adkins, who is currently leading the league in saves, had spent the previous two seasons with the Cincinnati Red’s Triple A affiliate. Despite leading the Triple A in saves last season, he had only 20 days or so on the big league team to show for it. So, he decided for his future and family, Korea was the best option for him.
“It’s like a journey for you,” said Adkins, who hails from a small town in West Virginia. “It’s something. You get to come and see a different culture. You get to meet different people. It’s really neat. It’s something that when I started playing I’d never have thought of doing. I joke with my dad, I’m like, bet nobody thought a country boy from Wayne would be this cultured.”
Adkins is one of four foreigners currently in the Lotte Giants dugout. He is joined by slugger Karim Garcia, skipper Jerry Royster and pitching coach Fernando Arroyo. The KBO currently boasts 16 foreign players – two foreign players are allowed on each team, and a handful of coaches. The Giants employ the second most foreigners in the league trailing only SK, who has five.
While all four come from different backgrounds, they are all equal when it comes to daily life on the diamond, in the dugout and on the street…but not without some difficulties.
“Obviously, I would have to say the communication part of it (is the biggest obstacle). I mean not knowing the language is difficult,” said Arroyo, who is joined by his wife Sue.
Arroyo, however, feels that adjusting to Korean life was easy for him because of his fellow teammates, but a little more difficult for his wife, who he said is often on her own.
Garcia agrees with Arroyo about the language barrier, but has a secret weapon to combat the problem his fellow cohorts do not – his three year old son.
“My little one, he’ll get right in the taxi and he’s like, alright we live here and here and after that he goes and has a full conversation (in Korean) with the taxi driver…I’m like what the hell is going on,” he laughed.
Garcia, who is originally from Mexico, is joined in Korea by both his children, Mariam, 7, and Paolo, 3. His fiancé Denisse also resides in Korea during the season. Both his children attend Korean academies or kindergartens.
Adkins also warns that attitude, and not talent, is the key to Busan bliss. “You have to want to be here and do well,” he said. “You can’t just come over here to just get a quick hit of money and leave. It has to be something you want to do.”
Food was another minor obstacle for them to overcome, however they are now embracing the Korean cuisine. “Trying to find those spices we are used to eating in Mexico or the U.S. is very difficult. Especially, I can’t read Korean, so it makes it very difficult. It took me months to find them,” said Garcia.
I’d almost eat everything western – fast food,” said Atkins, “but know I’m starting to open up a little more to some of the dishes.”
Same Name, Same Rules…. Different Game
In addition to the cultural barriers that exist in everyday life, the four Giants also need to deal with the idiosyncrasies of Korean baseball. For team manager Jerry Royster, that meant trying to bring the American energy and passion to Busan. Royster quickly implemented a positive energy to the team, emphasizing success rather than failure.
“It was more of a regiment than it was a sport,” said Royster. “The kids start at a very young age and they are beaten into playing better baseball. They are not really learning – they are just doing whatever you tell them to do because they don’t want to get hit.”
This can hurt their ability to perform and succeed in certain situations. Regardless, both Royster and Arroyo continue to work on individual strategy on the field. “They play the game, they practice it, but I think there are parts of the game — the situation part of the game– (that) is a little bit different in their way of thinking,” added Arroyo.
Royster, who is the first western manager in KBO history, feels bringing fun to the game has really paid off and Lotte’s results support that statement. Royster led the perennial bottom-feeding Giants to a third place finish last year and they are currently fighting for a playoff position this year.
The baseball traditions have also been something the players have needed to adapt to. Royster mentioned the 5th inning break, pitchers warming up on the field between innings and the lack of authority held by umpires, as key differences in the Korean game.
Despite all these subtle cultural differences, Royster attributes his ease in adapting to the
Korean style to his personal advisor – interpreter Curtis Jung, who he worked with in the LA Dodgers system. Jung is a Korean-American and an ex-KBO player himself.
“He is able to walk me through, so culturally we don’t – I don’t step on any toes. And that is very difficult. That is the biggest challenge,” Royster said.
From fans donning bags on their head, endless chants, to looking at taxi drivers with a blank stare or a confused smile, playing pro ball in Korea can be challenging. It may not be a perfect fit for everyone, but for these Lotte Giants, Busan life is a winning choice.
“I would love to (re-sign with Lotte), not for the next season, but for many years to come. I like the way the people treat me over here. I like baseball. I feel very, very grateful they gave me the opportunity and kept me,” said Garcia.
Royster echoed Garcia’s sentiments. “It’s been easy for me because I like it here and I think the people can see that I enjoy it.”