Justin Yoo, a Korean-American interpreter for the Baltimore Orioles’ South Korean pitcher Yoon Suk-min, has had a front-row seat on the player’s new life in the United States.
After nine mostly successful seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization, Yoon signed a three-year deal for $5.575 million with the Orioles last month.
Yoon was rushed to the team’s spring training, which had already been underway by the time he inked his contract, and he had to travel to Canada for a few days to receive his work permit before he was able to pitch in games.
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Yoon Suk-min (AP-Yonhap)
Whether due to his lack of preparation or to the stiff competition for a spot on the big league club’s staff, Yoon was optioned to the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tide, after making his second preseason appearance last week.
It could have been a frustrating situation for the former MVP in the top South Korean league, but the way Yoo sees it, the 27-year-old right-hander has adjusted to his new surroundings very well.
“Obviously, it has not been easy for him, but he is shrugging it all off and taking it in stride,” Yoo told Yonhap in an email interview. “Personally, I think he will handle (life in the U.S.) just fine. He is a professional and knows what to do to prepare himself for every game. Baseball is the same game anywhere you go.”
Yoo, 25, knows a thing or two about playing baseball in different places. He played baseball at two different high schools in California and began his collegiate career at Pierce College before transferring to Whittier College, both of them in the same state.
After college, Yoo played independent baseball for a year in New Mexico and later in the Texas Winter League. He is the younger brother of Stephen Yoo, a former NCAA Division I catcher who played one season for an independent South Korean club, the Goyang Wonders.
Justin Yoo said his playing experience “definitely helps in the interpretation.”
“Before I came to Florida (for the Orioles’ spring training), Yoon’s agent was interpreting for him and had a tough time relaying the bunt plays,” Yoo said. “He does not have any playing experience, so Yoon expressed how comfortable it was to have someone interpret the information to him in baseball terms. Things like signs and bunt plays are difficult for an average person to interpret but easy for someone with playing experience.”
Last year, Yoo served as an interpreter for Han Yong-duk, a former pitching coach of the KBO’s Hanwha Eagles who got his coaching training in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. The two were together with the Dodgers’ Advanced Single-A affiliate in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and then with the Dodgers’ Triple-A club in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Han returned to South Korea after one year and is now a special assistant to the Eagles’ general manager. Yoo said he was then supposed to be an interpreter for Ryu Hyun-jin, a second-year pitcher for the Dodgers, but the player wanted to stick with his interpreter from his rookie season, Martin Kim, who is also an account director of international partnerships in the Dodgers’ front office.
Yoo said the Dodgers instead referred him to the Orioles after Yoon signed, and that he got the job on the spot following an interview.
And though it has only been a few weeks since he joined the Orioles, Yoo said he already enjoys Yoon’s company.
“We have similar interests, so we get along and just hang out all day,” Yoo said. “I did not know what to expect when I was going to Florida. But as I have gotten to know him, he’s down to earth, humble, funny and just an overall nice guy.”
Yoo also said the Orioles’ teammates have treated Yoon with the kind of respect he deserves as a seasoned pro. Yoon joined the O’s after nine years for the Kia Tigers, and was voted the MVP of the KBO in 2011 after winning the pitching Triple Crown with 17 wins, 178 strikeouts and a 2.45 ERA.
The three-time KBO All-Star has a career record of 73-59 with 44 saves and a 3.19 ERA in 303 appearances.
In 1,129 innings, he struck out 949 batters and walked 345. He has been both a starter and a closer in his KBO career.
“The guys treat him like a veteran. They know his track record and know that he has pitched nine years professionally in Korea,” Yoo said.
“He may be a rookie on paper, but everyone knows that he has been a professional for quite some time. He gets along with everyone and all the guys have been very welcoming and have gone out of their way to get to know him as a person.”
As for himself, Yoo said he enjoys getting to travel with the team and getting to know the guys on a personal level.
“Just from watching baseball on TV, the players just seem like characters to us. But it is so interesting getting to know everyone on a deeper level,” he said. “Another perk is getting to have the best seat in the house!” (Yonhap)