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Posted : 2014-08-19 18:23
Updated : 2015-07-03 18:43

When 'mercenaries' first invaded the KBO

From left are Joe Strong, Mike Busch, Victore Cole, Mike Anderson, Shawn Hare and Tyrone Woods during the Korean Baseball Organization's first foreign player draft, in November 1997 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
/ Korea Times file

This is the second in a series of articles by the Society for American Baseball Research Korea Chapter (SABR Korea) exploring the rich history of baseball in Korea.


By Patrick Bourgo

The first wave of foreign players came to Korea to join the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in 1998.

While there had been ethnic Koreans from abroad playing professional baseball in Korea since the early 1980s, this article will focus on the group that joined in 1998 and were referred to as "yongbyeong" (mercenaries), a widely used term to describe foreign athletes in Korea.



Decision to bring foreign players
KBO officials were already talking about bringing in foreign players as early as the end of the league's first season in 1982.

While there were no serious discussions at that time, it was speculated by some that foreign players would be imported from the United States within five to seven years. Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan's professional baseball league which had served as the template for the KBO, had been featuring American players for decades.

As we now know, that time frame was a little overly optimistic and it wouldn't be until 1998 that the first group would join the professional ranks of Korean baseball.

Why was the decision made to bring in foreign talent?

A number of factors have been speculated in regards to the impetus for this decision.

While some Koreans thought that there was still something to learn from ex-major leaguers, and that they could increase the level of the game, there were other factors in play.

The popularity of the sport began sagging in the mid-1990s. Attendance was dropping for the first time and the sport saw the emergence of a new competitor, football.

Korea had won the bid to co-host the 2002 World Cup with Japan, and the craze surrounding the event was beginning to build.

Additionally, a Korean ballplayer by the name of Park Chan-ho was making waves in Major League Baseball (MLB), and drawing the KBO's fans' attention across the Pacific.

To make matters worse, the KBO had lost two of its biggest stars to Japanese pro ball.

Sun Dong-yeol, arguably the greatest KBO pitcher of all time, and Haitai Tigers teammate Lee Jong-bum had left the league to play in the NPB.

Both players were sold by their team due to the worsening financial situation that many teams in Korea were experiencing. However, no one was aware about exactly how bad the financial situation would get in Korea.

Any discussion about Korea in 1998 is not complete without mentioning the Asian financial crisis, or the "IMF (International Monetary Fund) Crisis" as it is commonly known in Korea, which had a direct impact on baseball.

The decision to bring in foreign players for the 1998 season had already been made before the crisis hit.

Teams were already concerned about the cost of the foreign players and some of the teams, as in the case of the Haitai Tigers, were already having financial problems.

Before the crisis, it had been estimated that it would cost teams approximately 165 million won per foreign player. There was a maximum annual salary at the time of 109 million won, not including bonuses. In the middle of November 1997, the exchange rate was 992 Korean won to $1. Less than a month later in mid-December, it had plummeted to 1,580 won per dollar.

For teams, that meant that the cost of foreign players had increased around 50 percent in that short span, as they had to pay the players in dollars. However, by that time, foreign players had already been drafted and were on their way to Korea.



The draft

The first foreign player draft was held in November 1997 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Eighty-one players were invited to the tryout and Korean teams were on the lookout for those that could make an immediate and substantial impact on their clubs. Expectations were sky high.

This initial group was composed of players ranging from some with MLB and foreign pro league experience to career minor leaguers.

Seven of the eight KBO teams took part in the draft.

Only the Ssangbangwool Raiders of Jeonju, North Gyeongsang Province, pulled out due to financial difficulties. The draft lasted five rounds with 35 players drafted.

Each team was allowed to sign two players to come to Korea and play for the club, while the other three remained in the U.S. and were on-call, should their services become necessary.

The draft ultimately resulted in OB, LG, Hanwha, Samsung and Hyundai signing two players.

Busan's Lotte Giants inked only their second-round pick, and Gwangju's Tigers only brought their first-rounder over in May, after getting off to a terrible start to the season.

In all, of the 12 players to play in 1998, eight were position players and four were pitchers (one starter and three relievers).

Joe Strong, who had been playing in Taiwan, was the first player taken by the Hyundai Unicorns.

Only two players taken in the first two rounds didn't make it to the KBO that year: Victor Cole, the first-round pick of the Giants and Chad Zerbe, the Tigers' second-round pick.

Cole, however, would eventually make it to Korea in 2000 and play for the SK Wyverns.

Given the economic climate at the time, the players were in for a chilly welcome.

Some informal polls of current players at the time had almost all of them against foreign players joining the league. Most just felt that it was not the right time.

There were also rumors and reports of teams having to cut Korean players and layoff office staff to scrounge up enough money to pay the foreigners.

Before the players' arrival, there were also numerous articles in newspapers arguing against bringing in foreign players, with cost being the main reason.

In addition to how people felt about them coming, the foreign players would have other hurdles to overcome, such as culture shock, and a different daily routine and diet.

They would also have to adjust to playing in a new league, with new coaches, teammates and opponents, with very few of them speaking their language.

The LG Twins plays did have the advantage of there being a foreign coach on the staff.

Joe Alverez, who had been in Korea since the early 1990s with Ssangbangwool and Lotte, had joined the Twins that offseason. Given all of these uncertainties, now that the players were finally here, how did they do?



Impact

On the whole, the foreign players' performance on the field was above average, but not spectacular, except for a couple of players. The four pitchers all made positive contributions to their teams.

Scott Baker, the only starter, notched 15 wins for the Samsung Lions, and finished the year with a 4.13 earned-run average (ERA), despite some complaints of being squeezed by home plate umpires. Strong led the foreign crop of relievers with 27 saves and a 2.95 ERA.

As for the position players, two of them had outstanding seasons, three pretty much bombed and the others were somewhere in between.

The three players that did not have the desired impact hoped for by their teams were Doug Brady of the Giants, Shawn Hare of the Tigers and Mike Busch of the Hanwha Eagles. Explanations and excuses for their poor performance included injuries, inconsistent playing time and an inability to adjust to life and the game in Korea.

There were also communication issues, with some of the players claiming that they were without a translator for long stretches of time.

Despite these issues, a couple of players thrived in Korea. The two offensive standouts were Scott Coolbaugh of the Unicorns and Tyrone Woods of the OB Bears.

Coolbaugh, a player with prior MLB experience with a couple of clubs, put together a great season for the Unicorns.

Despite getting off to a slow start, he ended the season with a .317 average, 27 doubles and 26 home runs.

Coolbaugh's contribution played a big part in helping the Unicorns get to the playoffs and eventually win the Korean Series, in which he hit a home run in the deciding sixth game.

Coolbaugh's brother, Mike, would also come to play in Korea in 2003 for the Doosan Bears.

Woods was a career minor leaguer in the U.S., last playing for Pawtucket, the Red Sox AAA team. He was drafted in the second round by the Bears and put together a season well beyond the team's expectations.

When all was said and done, Woods led the league in RBIs and home runs, and hit for a .312 average.

One of the biggest stories of that season was Woods' chase of the KBO single-season home run record.

With Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in a two-man race that year to break the home run record in MLB, Woods was alone in his pursuit in Korea.

With only a few games of the season left, Woods had tied Chang Jong-hoon's single season record of 41, and had his eye on the record books.

Fans and commentators alike wondered if he would receive the same kind of treatment foreign players saw in Japan when they had threatened the same record.

Starting with Randy Bass in 1985, any foreign player who approached the home run record in Japan was not given the chance to break it, being thrown one unhittable pitch after another.

As it turned out, Woods was given a fair shot to break the record. Chung Min-tae challenged Woods and Woods responded by hitting it out of the park for No. 42.

As if the home run record was not enough, Woods also went on to win the regular season MVP. He would go on to have a long and productive career in Korea, helping his team win a championship before moving on to Japan.

Only four of the original 12 foreign players returned for the 1999 season, but the experiment can still be considered a success, as foreign players are still coming to play in Korea.

In the years since 1998, there have been other foreigners who have had tremendous seasons in the KBO, but there have been many more whose seasons would rather be forgotten by their respective teams.

Like Woods, a few foreign players have had productive careers here, but far more were one and done, many not even lasting a season.

Starting in the 2014 season, the number of foreign players per team has increased to three, so in the coming years the KBO will be seeing more foreign players than ever.

With these increased numbers, teams will be working harder than ever to find the right formula for landing a foreign player who will have the kind of impact Woods did in 1998.

Patrick Bourgo is a Seoul-based baseball researcher and the founder and co-chair of the SABR Korea Chapter. Follow the SABR Korea Chapter at @KoreaSABR.

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