Kiwoom Heroes' manager Hong Won-ki (R) holds the team's cap with the club CEO Heo Hong during his inauguration ceremony at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on Monday, in this photo provided by the Heroes. (Kiwoom Heroes)
When it comes to playing for fans, Hong Won-ki, recently named the manager of the South Korean baseball club Kiwoom Heroes, doesn't want his players just to talk the talk. He'd like to see them walk the walk with their action on the field.
Hong, who was promoted from bench coach to manager last Thursday, was formally introduced on Monday in a ceremony streamed on the club's YouTube channel. The former player in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) first joined the Heroes as a scout in 2008 and then became their fielding coach in 2009. He spent the next 10 years in charge of the Heroes' defense and then served as bench coach last year.
The 47-year-old stressed the importance of playing for fans, especially during the global coronavirus pandemic when tens and thousands of people have had their lives turned upside down.
"Our primary goal is to play a fun and entertaining type of baseball for our fans," Hong said. "A lot of people have been affected by COVID-19 and I hope baseball can offer them hope and inspiration. Professional baseball wouldn't exist without the support of fans."
Hong is taking the reins of a club seemingly in a constant state of turmoil. They went through a stunning managerial change late last season, when first-year skipper Son Hyuk abruptly resigned in October amid rumors that he was forced out by the meddlesome front office. They played the rest of the season under 35-year-old interim manager Kim Chang-hyun, who had been their quality control coach. They were considered a title contender when Son stepped down but fizzled out early in the postseason.
Club CEO Ha Song stepped down in late November. Hur Min, chairman of the board for the Heroes, was suspended two months by the KBO at the end of last year over an earlier incident. Hur had forced his way on to the mound to test his knuckleball against the Heroes' minor leaguers and had allegedly tried to retaliate against a tipster who sent smartphone footage of Hur's action to a local TV station.
Despite their sustained success on the field -- the Heroes have been to the postseason in three straight seasons -- their attendance numbers have been steadily falling. The Heroes ranked last in the league in average home attendance in both 2018 and 2019, the two most recent pre-pandemic seasons when KBO stadiums stayed open the whole time. They averaged barely over 6,300 fans at the 16,000-seat Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.
Against this backdrop, Hong said it was with "a heavy sense of responsibility" that he's taking the reins.
"We have a great front office, a talented squad and a well-defined system," Hong said. "My job is to bring out the best in my players and put them in a position to succeed. But I won't be able to do it alone. We all have to come together to accomplish our goal."
Hong said the players should concentrate on giving their best efforts without worrying about outcomes.
"We may not always get the results that we want," Hong said. "If my players have done their absolute best and still didn't get what they wanted, then I will shoulder all the blame."
In a Q&A session that followed the ceremony, Hong addressed the persistent rumors that the Heroes' front office will continue to run the show from upstairs and the field manager will merely be a puppet.
Hong denied that the front office forced him to work with Kim Chang-hyun, the interim skipper last season, as his new bench coach.
"I recommended Coach Kim to the front office, and the management accepted it," Hong said. "The bench coach in baseball is supposed to be the manager's right-hand man. At the end of the season, hopefully I'll be able to prove that I made the right decision with Kim."
Hong said he has already spoken with CEO Heo about doing his job from the dugout without any unnecessary nudging from the front office.
"I think there is a line that should never be crossed, and CEO Heo told me he will not cross that line," Hong said. "It's quite clear what the front office is supposed to do and what the team on the field is supposed to do."
As for the squad, Hong will have to fill a huge hole following the departure of shortstop Kim Ha-seong. Kim signed a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres at the end of 2020, and the Heroes will be without their most complete hitter and best infielder.
Hong said the Heroes have often had to deal with losses of key players and have always been able to stay competitive.
"I can tell you we have a lot of talented players who can step up in Kim Ha-seong's absence," the new manager said. "I think they will be able to fill the void through healthy competition." (Yonhap)