BUSAN, South Korea
– Much to the disappointment of the local fans, Jerry Royster’s contract was not renewed with the Lotte Giants. When asked by Busan Haps if he received an explanation for his dismissal, Royster simply said, "No reason was given but I didn't ask for one either. I don't believe that a reason could be given after what has been accomplished in the last 3 years."
The American from Sacramento, California, who played in the MLB for 17 years and did things for the Giants that at first seemed impossible, has fair point.
IIn 2008, Jerry Royster inherited a team that had been utterly rudderless for almost eight years. The Giants weren't as much a baseball team as they were a national punchline. Aging players had been allowed to stay on, younger players didn't perform well and many of their foreign signings were little short of disasters.
Anyone remember a completely washed up Felix Jose starting at DH? During his third tour of duty with Lotte, Jose was teamed with Venezuelan hero Robert Perez during the 2007 season. The two had a combined age of 80 and played like it.
Lotte did have some talent. Kang Min-ho looked like a born leader behind the plate, Lee Dae-ho had already had a triple crown season and Kim Ju-chan had shown speed and versatility. Something was clearly lacking. It was clear that Lotte needed someone to lead the squad from the dugout and change the team's culture of losing and poor attitude. After the 2007 season, Lotte sacked manager Kang Byeong-cheol and brought the first ever non-Korean manager into the KBO.
Royster's impact on the club was almost immediate–as was his impact on the entire city, as witnessed when 30,000 fans turned out just to see him film a credit card commercial. But it was on the baseball side of things where he took not only the Giants, but the KBO itself into new territory.
Royster shrugged off traditional Confucianism that at times dictates that a young pitcher shouldn’t be rude and brush back a player only months more his elder. He restructured the KBO philosophy from its very foundations, buiding a higher level of trust between players and the manager and improved communication between the clubhouse and the front office. He also supported his players by putting them in a position to succeed.
Royster's importance was not limited to the field. He encouraged Lotte to build a community around the team and use baseball as a rallying point locally and nationally. The Lotte Giants were one of the first teams in the KBO to introduce a theme night at the ballpark. Doosan may have been first with their "Queen's Day" promotion, but one could argue that Lotte did it better with their "Foreigner Night" promotions. Along with Busan Haps Magazine, Royster was one of the driving forces behind the implementation of the program which enjoyed great success.
A Less than Inspirational Welcome Speech
The first time I met Royster he told me that before he took the job, he was told that the players really weren't very good and it would take a while to restock the roster with better talent. Royster was told that he didn't need to worry about winning right away and should concentrate on running the day-to-day working of the team. Well, the players turned out to be a little better than the Lotte executives had planned on. They just needed some leadership and support.
The 2008 Giants' 69-57 record was good enough for a third place finish, and Lotte's first trip to the postseason since 2000. Sadly, the new and improved Giants were swept out of the playoffs by a Samsung Lions team that most had completely written off.
More interestingly for the front office, was that Lotte broke the all time attendance record for the KBO. Royster and the boys were not only putting good numbers on the board but lots of butts in the seats. Translation: Cash.
The Giants proved that their 2008 success wasn't a fluke. They broke their own attendance recored returned to the post season in 2009, but were again knocked out in the first round in four games by the Doosan Bears.
Royster made it 3 for 3 when he lead the 2010 Giants to a fourth place finish and a third consecutive trip to the playoffs. Lotte looked like they would advance to the second round after taking a 2-0 series lead, but they dropped three straight games to the Doosan Bears and wound up getting knocked out for the third straight year.
Royster may not have been given a reason for being let go, but it's clear that his sacking was based on his playoff record. It's really too bad that Lotte executives can't see past twelve games and take a look at the bigger picture of what he accomplished during his time in Busan.
Then there are the questions of money. This is an organization that saw two consecutive years of record breaking attendance and yet, sought to cut Lee Dae Ho’s salary as well as Royster at the onset of the 2010 season. Wondering if they are tight with the money? One need only have seen the incredibly poor condition of the turf at Sajik during the playoffs when the nation was watching to realize that they don’t like the idea of spending money.
Fair enough, but a championship team needs a champion budget.
Sadly, Royster's legacy with Lotte will be one of unfinished business. He met with limited success and was let go for things of which he has little control. Judging a manager by a playoff record is a terrible way to assess his skill as a skipper. It's too small of a sample size to really understand what a manager does and how important he is to a club. Royster led the Giants with dignity and brought a mutual respect between a player and coach to the KBO. He should be judged by his ability to lead and support his players, not by how his team performed over a mere twelve games.
When asked about his future plans, Royster simply stated, "I will spend time with my 2 girls and see what's next in my life. I hope that my time in Korea isn't over."
Royster also wanted to let Lotte fans know that the time he spent in Korea was very special to him.
"The Lotte fans have been my favorite part of being in Korea. I would have never survived without my family if it wasn't for you. Though I am moving on, I will never forget you."