Fallen baseball stars take a second chance at glory
The two men’s lives seem to reflect one another ― both were star pitchers in their prime when personal disaster struck. Hanwha Eagles minor league pitching coach Choi Dong-won, 47, and Hanwha pitcher Cho Sung-min, 32, were at the height of their careers, though at different times, and were enjoying unparalleled success. Maybe they enjoyed it too much, and as a result suffered swift and tumultuous falls from grace.
Choi was "blacklisted" by the Korean Baseball Organization for trying to start a baseball players’ union, and medical problems with Cho’s elbow cost him his job at the same time his troubled marriage to actress Choi Jin-sil was ending in divorce. These were sad times for both men, as they were forced to leave the world of professional baseball. Dreaming of making a comeback, they met in the minor leagues, where Choi was a coach and Cho a player, and started to work together to recapture their dreams.
When Cho had his first win on Aug. 15 against the Hyundai Unicorns; people coined it a "human victory."
Hanwha Eagles manager Kim In-sik wanted Choi to train Cho, and so a meeting was set for the two at Hanhwa’s stadium in Daejeon on May 7. Choi started off brusque, saying, "Let's start with small moves."
Choi was worried that Cho might push himself too hard to show his worth after waiting two desperate years for another chance. He did not want Cho to relive his painful experience. Choi knew what that was like: he began coaching in 2001, but quit shortly after after hearing others say, "Choi Dong-won pitches well, but he still has a long way to go before he becomes a good pitching coach."
After the game on Aug. 15, people compared Cho to a criminal pardoned on Liberation Day. Cho was on the mound during an away game against Hyundai in Suwon. Something was watching over him, and he gave up no runs when the team was behind, leading Hanwha to an upset victory.
While the two were being interviewed at a cafe near the home stadium in Daejeon, a high school student saw Cho and wanted to have a picture taken with him, saying that he too played baseball. Choi arrived in the cafe and an employee greeted him. Everyone knew who they were.
Despite the fame, however, they have lost much. Cho said he had no confidence that he would ever have a family. The divorce was a shock to him. However, he said he badly wanted to play baseball again.
"I played baseball for 20 years, and lived with my ex-wife for six years, but the six years overclouded the 20 years. I want to be remembered as a baseball player," Cho said.
Choi said that Cho’s comments were praiseworthy, noting that he knew from their training sessions how much Cho wanted to play baseball. Cho was over 30, and it must have been hard for him to endure the training. But Choi knew what he was going through. "With such an attitude, there is a possibility, right Sung-min?" Choi asked.
Cho gazed at his cup for a while without speaking. "Coming to think of it, we are both having a second chance," he said. “Mr. Choi went back to coaching and I started baseball again.”
Both men are starting over. Both wanted to return to baseball after a long detour. Both faced difficulties. Now they live on the field, and say they are happier than they’ve been in a long time.
"We spent 90 percent of our lifetime here on baseball fields," Choi said. "We are happiest here. No matter what happens in the meantime, Sung-min is going to top it off beautifully," he added, patting Cho's shoulder.
by Chang Hye-soo