After a forgettable playing career as a light-hitting shortstop, Yeom Kyung-yup is enjoying a memorable first season as the manager of the Nexen Heroes.
For the second year, the Heroes have charged out to first place in the month of May. Through Sunday, the Heroes were 27-13, holding a half-game lead over the two-time defending champions, Samsung Lions.
Last season, the Heroes were in first place in late May but faded away badly in the second half. They ended up in sixth, two spots below the final playoff berth.
This year, the Heroes are back at the top in May, and in a sign of their remarkable consistency, the Heroes are the only KBO club that has yet to lose more than two games in a row this year.
Nexen manager Yeom Kyung-yup (Yonhap News)
Many believe they will be able to sustain their early momentum and reach the first postseason in the team’s five-year history.
Those believers point to Yeom as the key. And the Heroes’ strong start has turned Yeom into a household name.
And yet only hardcore baseball fans remember Yeom as a player, a .195 hitter who spent a better part of his career as a backup.
In an interview with Yonhap at Mokdong Stadium, the Heroes’ home in western Seoul, Yeom spoke about how he has always wanted to be a better coach than a player.
He sounded so detached when looking back on his career that it seemed as if he were discussing someone else’s life.
“As a player, everything came so easy to me,” Yeom said. “I didn’t even try that hard, and I became a starting player. But I couldn’t capitalize on that opportunity. I spent too much time partying, and my body just couldn’t keep up with the demands of pro baseball.”
A second-round draft pick out of college, Yeom made his KBO debut with the Taepyungyang Dolphins, the previous incarnation of the Heroes, in 1991. The Dolphins later became the Hyundai Unicorns, and Yeom retired as a Unicorn in 2000.
He was a regular shortstop for the first few seasons. But in 1996, Park Jin-man, a highly touted shortstop prospect, joined the Unicorns out of high school and promptly replaced Yeom as the team’s everyday shortstop.
Yeom said he was hurt by the changing of the guard, though he had no one to blame but himself. It also proved to be a turning point ― it was then that he started to think about baseball “in a different light,” he said.
“I started studying baseball harder than before,” he said. “I had lost my opportunity as a player, but in my second career, I wanted to become a successful coach.”
Yeom was relegated to mostly pinch-running duties in the latter part of his career, but those last several seasons helped mold him into a managerial type.
“To survive as a backup player, I began to always think about strategies when watching baseball,” Yeom said. “I constantly thought about ways that could give our team an edge, something that could help us beat favored opponents.”
It took Yeom more than a decade after the end of his playing career to become a manager. Before being named the Heroes’ manager, Yeom spent some time in the front office of the Unicorns and later the LG Twins, and had also served as a coach and a scout for both clubs ― all the while obsessively writing down his thoughts on baseball strategies.
“I’ve been taking notes since I started working in the front office,” Yeom said. “I wanted to give coaches information that I felt would help our team win. Then when I became a coach, my specialty was in defense and baserunning. So I focused on these two areas as far as trying to help my team.”
Yeom is said to have enough material for a book on baseball strategies. He said, however, that he didn’t start taking notes just so he could one day become a manager. (Yonhap News)