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For the love of the game

MLB players from Park Chan-ho to Ryu Hyun-jin fuel baseball boom at home

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin will receive serious consideration for the Rookie of the Year award. (AP-Yonhap News)
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin will receive serious consideration for the Rookie of the Year award. (AP-Yonhap News)
The Korea Baseball Organization said last month that South Korea’s top professional baseball league has passed the 6 million mark in attendance for the third straight year. It’s a reminder of how the ball game has emerged as a national pastime.

Not only diehard baseball buffs but also ordinary families, couples and friends are visiting the ball parks together to watch the heart-thumping, live drama. People also constantly talk about the games and players in the workplace, at schools, cafeterias and on social networks.

It’s a bit of a stretch to say that Korea is a “baseball nation” yet, but it’s also safe to say that baseball is now an integral part of Korean leisure.

Adding a fresh shot of energy to the broader boom this year were the shining performances of Korean players in Major League Baseball.

Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers exceeded the expectations of many with his unstoppable rookie campaign, and the Cincinnati Reds’ Choo Shin-soo had a memorable season.

According to local cable channel MBC Sports Plus, the average ratings of broadcasts featuring Ryu on weekends more than doubled a normal day’s viewership to 2.41 percent.

The success stories of Ryu and Choo, however, were only the latest in a string of of Korean players who boldly took a shot at playing in the world’s top baseball league. And it has not always been smooth sailing for Koreans in the fiercely competitive battleground.

Up until the early 1990s, a Korean player on a U.S. Major League Baseball team was considered something that could only be imagined.

Korea’s top baseball league, launched in 1982 and operated by the Korea Baseball Organization, was considered second-tier compared to other top baseball leagues. Even a former Double-A pitcher, Park Chul-soon, dominated the country’s pro baseball league’s inaugural season with 22 straight victories, and a has-been from the Japanese league named Jang Myeong-boo garnered 30 wins in the following year.

Several players such as Park and Choi Dong-won came close to signing with an MLB team, but either a stroke of bad luck, uncooperative authorities or simple inadequacy thwarted their attempts.

First leap

Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Park Chan-ho (File photo)
Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Park Chan-ho (File photo)
It all changed on April 8, 1994, when a 21-year-old college dropout by the name of Park Chan-ho stepped out onto the mound of the Los Angeles Dodgers to become the first Korean ever to play in the top U.S. baseball league.

After a few years of jumping between the MLB and the minor leagues, Park finally established himself as a force in the big leagues in 1997, posting a 14-8 record and a 3.38 ERA (earned run average) in 32 appearances. Dubbed “Korean Express” by Korean media, Park collected double-digit wins each season from 1997 to 2001, and gained the All-Star honor in 2001.

His success jump-started a new trend of top Korean baseball prospects testing their skills and will on U.S. soil.

In 1999, 20-year-old relief pitcher Kim Byung-hyun was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks. The young, confident right-hander quickly gained a reputation for his ability to strike out batters, and was one of the key closers for the Arizona squad that won the 2001 World Series.

Kim stepped up his game the next season when he notched a career-high 36 saves on a 2.04 ERA and was invited to play in that year’s All-Star game.

As with Park and Kim, the majority of the Korean youngsters who knocked on the doors of the MLB were pitchers. But in 2002, the burly 196-cm-tall youngster Choi Hee-seop became the first Korean position player to play in the big leagues.

“Big Choi” was one of the few Asian batters who could intimidate opposing pitchers with his power and size, and he lived up to some of the hype by being voted “Rookie of the Month” in April 2003.

Despite his physical gifts, he fell short of becoming a quality player on the American stage and returned to Korea in 2007 to play for his hometown Gwangju’s Kia Tigers.

Darker times

Choi was not the only player who failed to prolong his career in the MLB. Cho Jin-ho, Lee Sang-hoon, Koo Dae-sung, Ryu Jae-kuk, Kim Sun-woo and Bong Jung-keun ― all pitchers ― left little to no impact on the U.S. league.

Seo Jae-weong, on the other hand, appeared to follow the footsteps of Park by building a name for himself after a strong rookie season with the New York Mets in 2003. The control pitcher won nine games on a respectable 3.82 ERA, while logging 188 innings and starting 31 games.

Seo’s moment of glory, however, was short-lived as he moved back and forth between the Triple-A and the MLB over the next four years.

Meanwhile, the former All-Star duo of Park and Kim were not faring much better.

After Park signed a $65 million, five-year deal with the Texas Rangers in 2001, a series of injuries hampered the veteran pitcher, and he never regained star status after leaving LA. Park would spend the latter part of his career as a journeyman, playing for seven different MLB teams from 2005-2010.

Kim Byung-hyun’s career also started to spiral downward after the 2003 season, largely due to his unsuccessful transition to a starter. He played his last MLB game in 2007.

Choo-choo Train, Ryu and Im’s belated challenge

Cincinnati Reds’ Choo Shin-soo (AP-Yonhap News)
Cincinnati Reds’ Choo Shin-soo (AP-Yonhap News)
Out in Seattle, Choo Shin-soo was looking for his big break in the shadows of Japan-born superstar Ichiro Suzuki. The chance came after the pitcher-turned-outfielder was traded to the Cleveland Indians in 2006, where he slowly but surely began his ascent to stardom.

In 2009, Choo joined the 20-20 club (20 home runs and 20 stolen bases) for the first time in his career. He was also the only player in the American League to have a .300 average, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases at the same time.

The accomplishment demonstrated Choo’s playing style of combining strength, precision and speed. The “Choo-choo Train” powered on and repeated the feat the next season, and once again recorded 20-20 in 2013.

From Park Chan-ho to Choo, the players who enjoyed success in the MLB had one thing in common: They started their professional careers in the U.S.

The pattern broke when Ryu Hyun-jin joined the LA Dodgers for the 2013 season.

The player, known to Korean fans simply as “Monster” for his sheer dominance of the KBO league, carried on his outstanding performance in the MLB.

Ryu wrapped up his rookie season with a solid 14-8 on a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings. The southpaw struck out 154 batters and allowed 49 walks while helping his team reach the National League Championship Series.

Although the Dodgers fell to the Cardinals in six games, Ryu became the first Korean to pick up a starting win in the MLB playoffs in Game 3.

Chicago Cubs pitcher Lim Chang-yong (AP-Yonhap News)
Chicago Cubs pitcher Lim Chang-yong (AP-Yonhap News)
The last player on the list of Korean MLB players is Lim Chang-yong, who has had a unique career. He did not start his career in the U.S., but rather waited until the twilight of his playing days to cross the Pacific Ocean.

On Sept. 4, the Chicago Cubs called up Lim from its minor league affiliate, making him the oldest Korean rookie in the MLB at the age of 37. He pitched five innings in six games with a 5.40 ERA.

Lim’s story shows that it is never too late to achieve a dream. His effort also highlights the spirit channeled by all 14 Koreans who bravely challenged their limits and tried their luck in a foreign land.

“The moment I stepped onto the Major League mounds, I felt like it was the new beginning,” Lim told local reporters while talking about his belated challenge earlier this month. “I’m not too worried about records. I am satisfied.”

By Yoon Min-sik (