Asian and American Ballplayers Face Unusual Challenges When Living Abroad

Tim Penman@TimPenman24Featured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2016

Byung-ho Park is introduced to the media after signing a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins in December 2015.
Byung-ho Park is introduced to the media after signing a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins in December 2015.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

When new St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Seung-hwan Oh and new Minnesota Twins slugger Byung-ho Park start their first day of spring training next month, the Korean players will be in the same boat former big leaguer Josh Lindblom found himself in when he made the opposite trip last year. 

After being designated for assignment by both the Oakland Athletics and the Pittsburgh Pirates, Lindblom signed with the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). They trained in Arizona, but that first day was an eye-opener for the right-hander. 

Pitchers threw a staggering 80-100 pitches during bullpen sessions. Hitters took a seemingly endless amount of hacks during batting practice.

“My arm hurt just watching some of them throw their bullpens,” Lindblom told Bleacher Report in a phone interview. “Guys go over to Korea and expect it to be like the minor leagues or the majors, but you can’t compare it to baseball in the States. It’s completely different and you just have to accept that.”

Lindblom was reporting to camp much earlier than he had ever reported before. Although the Giants were training in Arizona, a warmer locale than their home city of Busan, South Korea, the desert scene familiar to Lindblom from his stint with the A's in 2014 had a much different feel this time around.

While the Giants allowed the 28-year-old right-hander to stick to his own routine, Lindblom couldn’t get over the contrasts in baseball culture.

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“In Korean baseball, they work out as a team all year round," Lindblom said. "At the first practice, our translator said we had to get back at 6 p.m. for dinner and night practice, and I was like, 'Night practice? What's that?'"

“It baffles the American-born players’ minds to kind of see that these guys are pretty much trying to blow out their arms in spring training,” Han Gil Lee, CEO of Global Sporting Integration (GSI), told Bleacher Report in a phone interview. “But in Korea, that’s the norm. They view repetition as the recipe for success, where in America it's all about maximum fitness levels.”

A player’s ability to adapt to a new culture and style of baseball is what interests Lee and GSI, a consulting firm that focuses on helping teams and individual athletes, including Lindblom, solve common problems that arise when players pursue these types of trans-Pacific baseball careers.

While some major league teams have started to hire Latin American coordinators to act as additional support systems for their Spanish-speaking players, Lee noted that certain Asian players aren't lucky enough to get extra help.

A player's transition is something the average fan probably doesn’t think about—what is involved in leaving behind your friends and homeland in order to pursue a path that has a very high failure rate for foreign players.

Here in the States, Korean infielder Jung Ho Kang’s successful first season for the Pittsburgh Pirates has helped develop the pipeline for South Korean-born position players coming over from the KBO.

Initially labeled a risky signing, Kang turned out to be one of the most cost-effective players in 2015.  

Major league teams have recently sent more scouts to Korea, and multiple players have been posted by Korean clubs this offseason.

In addition to Oh and Park, the Baltimore Orioles joined the party by signing outfielder Hyeon-soo Kim to a two-year, $7 million deal on December 23

Kang was the first Korean-born position player to come directly from the KBO. He represents a group of players who can be sneaky-good offseason additions.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

“The way that MLB teams look at Korean players in general has changed,” Lee said. “The interest level has changed. I can tell there is a lot more respect given towards Korean ballplayers now. A lot of teams [initially] assumed Kang couldn't adjust to American baseball.”

However, it was the low success rate for both American players competing in the Far East and Asian ballplayers trying to stick with major league teams here in the States that prompted Lee to start GSI in June 2013.

“I just got tired of seeing so many Asian players get phased out [in America] due to cultural challenges,” Lee said. “Our goal is to serve as a bridge for players going both ways. In terms of longevity, adapting to societal differences can be as important as their performance on the field.”

While U.S. teams hire translators for Asian players, the personnel are often not qualified to provide all the resources needed for a successful transition, according to Lee.

“I don't want to blast teams, but what they are focusing on versus what we are focusing on is just different,” he said.

On the baseball side of things, players can be thrown off by the differences in equipment, field design, strike-zone size, coaching dynamics, travel demands or clubhouse atmosphere. Wider seams on the balls here have also proved tricky for certain Asian pitchers to get used to. The difference in size can affect how much their breaking balls move here in the States compared to back home.

While players such as Kang, Hyun-jin Ryu, Matt Murton, Wladimir Balentien, Hideki Matsui and future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki have enjoyed great trans-Pacific baseball careers, there are many others whose careers have fizzled in their respective new leagues.

For example, Japanese infielders such as Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Hiroyuki Nakajima had failed transitions to MLB partly because they could not adapt to natural grass surfaces in the U.S. as well as a more slippery ball than they were used to, Lee said. Both players were three-time Gold Glove Award winners back in Japan.

“These are just things that they have to adjust to as quickly as possible, but often times they don't find out about these things until they show up for spring training,” Lee said. “If we can pre-warn them, our belief is that it would at least alleviate the troubles they would possibly face.”

Global Sporting Integration has both American and Korean clients, including Hwang, Lindblom, minor league prospect Hak-Ju Lee and Kevin Youkilis during his 2014 season in Japan.

Members of Lee's team serve more as pseudo-managers, helping each player navigate everyday life in a brand-new environment.

After signing with the Lotte Giants for one year and $850,000, the team put Lindblom in touch with GSI and three weeks later, required him and his family to attend a three-day cultural seminar run by Lee prior to spring training.

Topics covered by GSI at the seminar ranged from what type of food to look out for to grasping how to interact with older players and coaches within the Korean seniority system embedded in their way of life.

“The culture there is completely different with the hierarchy on age,” Lindblom said. “In Asian cultures, people are respected purely for the fact that they are older than you and they have life experiences, which you don't have. There's a certain way to speak to people who are older than you, a certain way to bow or shake hands. It’s something you always have to have in the back of your mind.”

Josh Lindblom last pitched in the major leagues in 2014 with the Oakland Athletics. After being designated for assignment twice in one month, he took his talents (and his whole family) to Korea.
Josh Lindblom last pitched in the major leagues in 2014 with the Oakland Athletics. After being designated for assignment twice in one month, he took his talents (and his whole family) to Korea.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

While some have thrived in the KBO, other American players such as Nyjer Morgan and Philip Humber have been unsuccessful. In fact, less than 30 percent of the American-born players come back for a second season, according to Lee.

Lindblom, however, performed well in his first year as a starting pitcher in Korea, and in November, he re-signed with the Giants. After bouncing around from team to team in the majors, he says he enjoys his newfound job security.

“Going to a foreign team when you are the minority is difficult,” Lindblom said. “But you're playing with guys who have played baseball for as long as you have. The language of baseball really is universal; you can go anywhere and speak it."

Lee is also on call to answer any problems that come up in players' daily lives, including figuring out how to run the dishwasher when every button is in Korean, learning the proper way to recycle and how to find baby products, Lindblom said.

For Asian players in America like Kang, just adjusting to the fact that they cannot get certain goods as easily as they can back home may be tough. Various aspects of their daily routines get thrown off, and that can be hard to anticipate. 

When CBS Sports baseball writer David Brown interviewed Kang during the middle of last season, the transitioning infielder shared what he missed most about home: 

"Korean late-night snacks," Kang told Brown. "Pork feet. Marinated pork feet, and slow-roasted pork. There are a couple of menus back home that feature all-time-classic. You have them delivered. Like pizza."

Lee said part of his job entails telling clients how to get to the best restaurants, or where to go to enjoy some downtime. For example, when prospect Hak-Ju Lee moved to Durham, North Carolina, to play for the Durham Bulls, Lee had to give him directions to where he could go for a late-night meal as well as a list of the best college town hangouts, things the team simply does not supply.

Youkilis, who played for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Nippon Professional Baseball in 2014, also found GSI helpful in navigating the differences between life in the U.S. and Japan, such as a different approach to personal space. He and his family had to get used to sort of fighting their way off elevators because people would just rush on, he said.

Koji Sasahara/Associated Press

“At first we were like, 'What the heck, man! Like, get off me!'” Youkilis said. “But once you got used to that, you kind of joke around and have fun with it and laugh.”

On the field, Youkilis found that while some Japanese coaches are very open-minded to the American style of play, others “think we do everything wrong,” he said.

“There was this third base coach who I don’t think really liked the way I played first base,” Youkilis said. “But it’s kind of funny because I won a Gold Glove here in the U.S. He just thought their baseball is better. At times it was a little frustrating, but you have to find a balance.”

After being limited to just 21 games and 79 plate appearances due to plantar fasciitis, Youkilis retired from baseball following the season.

How players such as Los Angeles Dodgers Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda, Park and Kim can adjust to the baseball and culture in the States may have a significant impact on the further internationalization of the sport.

Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda pitches against Team Puerto Rico in the semi-finals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic on March 17, 2013, at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda pitches against Team Puerto Rico in the semi-finals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic on March 17, 2013, at AT&T Park in San Francisco.Ben Margot/Associated Press

While the number of Asian players competing in MLB may be slim (16), Lee anticipates more progression, meaning the services GSI can provide could become more appealing.

Four Asian players were posted this offseason, with two of them signing on with MLB teams. On top of that, Kim and Oh signed as international free agents, and first baseman Dae-ho Lee is hoping to ink an MLB deal as well, according to Yonhap News' Yoo Jee-ho

“There’s a heightened interest in the [Asian] leagues now,” Lee said. “In addition to Hwang and Park, there were a lot of players who could have potentially made the jump this offseason. I do think the number of players coming over will continue to grow.”

Author's note: All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.