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Tigers’ Guttormson adapting to his new life in Korea, KBO

May 27,2009
Rick Lee Guttormson has six wins and one loss on the season and is well on his way to meeting his goal of 10 wins. [YONHAP]
Rick Lee Guttormson is more than comfortable on the baseball field.

The 31-year-old pitcher has been playing the game since he was old enough to walk, learning the ropes in T-ball as a child, earning his chops on the baseball diamond during high school in suburban Seattle and then moving around the minor leagues for years in the United States.

Eventually, though, he decided to move all the way to Japan to suit up with the Nippon Professional Baseball league, where he played four seasons with the Yakult Swallows and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

It was a big adjustment, but he had the familiarity of the pitching mound to ease the transition.

Now, Guttormson once again finds himself in unfamiliar territory.

He signed with the Kia Tigers of the Korea Baseball Organization during the offseason, forcing him to adapt to yet another country with a distinct culture and language.

“I like it here,” Guttormson said during an interview in the Tigers’ dugout. “It’s similar to Japan and I’m used to being in Asia, but the food’s a little more difficult for me. I learned some Japanese but, not knowing anything here, I have to start over.”

Once again, though, he’s finding his comfort zone on the mound.

Guttormson has performed well so far this season, racking up six wins, one loss and an impressive 2.13 ERA. He is tied with three others for the most wins so far this season and has been penciled in as the ace of the Tigers pitching staff. Behind his fastball, forkball, slider and changeup - as well as an offense that is finally starting to produce runs - the Tigers are sitting in third place.

Despite the successful start, Guttormson has set a modest goal for himself. He wants to stay healthy and secure at least 10 wins. It’s a goal that seems well within reach, if not a bit modest.

Away from the field, his transition to life in Korea hasn’t been easy.

Sure, there are the pangs of homesickness that most foreigners get living abroad. From time to time he misses Mexican food and good old American favorites like steak and baked potatoes. It’s a bit difficult, and frustrating, to attempt to order food at restaurants.

Those concerns, however, are somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of things. As an athlete adjusting to completely new surroundings, Guttormson said he pines for his wife and two boys more than anything.

“I miss my home and family. That’s the toughest part about playing in the KBO. They were with me in Japan but I don’t know if they’re going to come out here this year,” Guttormson said. “One of my boys is starting pre-school. It’s pretty hard to be away from them.”

Guttormson has had some memorable moments throughout his baseball career, including being drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 1997 amateur draft when he was still in high school.

But he recalls his years in Japan with extreme fondness, deeming his no-hitter as a Yakult Swallow in a game against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2006 “one of the biggest moments.” He was the first NPB player to pitch a no-hitter in interleague play.

Guttormson even hit two home runs while playing in Japan ? former teammate C.J. Nitkowski uploaded a clip on YouTube of one of them, titling it “The Legend of Rick Guttormson”- though he does not miss the batting aspect of the game.

“It takes away from your pitching,” he said. “I like to hit but you have to constantly think about it.”

It’s not necessarily hard to believe that he can hit homers: Guttormson was a shortstop in high school and also played both football and basketball growing up.

While most kids at the time watched sports and idolized professional athletes, Guttormson spent his time outdoors.

“I didn’t really grow up idolizing any baseball players. To be honest, I didn’t even have a favorite team growing up. I didn’t watch any baseball. I know, it’s kind of weird,” Guttormson said with a chuckle.

These days, he doesn’t have a lot of free time. But he has found ways to unwind from the pressures of the long and demanding baseball season, watching movies, hosting visiting family members and splashing around on the water slides at Gold Spa Resort.



[jason@joongang.co.kr]



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