Pitch imperfectBUSAN, South Gyeongsang
In the 2002 movie “The Rookie,” Dennis Quaid played the real life character of Jim Morris, who, 12 years after quitting competitive ball, made it to the major leagues as a pitcher. At age 35, he ended up playing 21 games for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1999-2000 seasons.
Kim Geon-duk, 27, has never heard about the story nor has he seen the movie. But as the years slowly tick away, he, too, is still reaching for his dream of being a professional baseball player.
Sitting on a bench in front of his workplace in the Yeongdo district office in Busan, he gazes far off into the sea in front of him. Slowly inhaling from a thin cigarette, Mr. Kim manages to put on a thin smile when asked about the days when he was hailed as the nation’s pitcher of the future.
“I had a fastball and a slider,” he said as if his glory days were just yesterday. “After my fastball, often I would throw a slider as an off pitch. And it worked many times.”
Gone are the finely-tuned muscles of an athlete who burns fat and calories as a Porsche consumes fuel. When the 183-centimeter (6-foot) right-hander was the star pitcher at Kyeongnam Commercial High School, he weighed a trim 83 kilograms (183 pounds). These days, he’s a rolling, David Wells-like 120 kilograms. His current, sedentary job and more than four years away from the game have added up on his body. At the moment, he is fulfilling his mandatory military service by working as a clerk in the district office; he won’t finish until December 2004.
He keeps track of parking tickets and helps out with other office routines such as mailing out official letters.
Some avid baseball fans at the office remember Mr. Kim from his old days, when he led the national team to the gold medal in 1994 at the World Junior Championships in Brandon, Canada.
In the championship game against the United States, in the eighth inning, Mr. Kim batted in the tying run that overcame an 8-6 deficit. He also was the winning pitcher.
Lee Seung-yeop of the Samsung Lions, who recently set the record as the youngest player in the world to hit 300 home runs, and Kim Sun-woo, now a pitcher for the Montreal Expos, were also on the team.
When Kim Geon-duk accomplished those feats, his baseball career reached its pinnacle. He had won pitching awards in 1993 and 1994 at the prestigious Bonghwangi and Hwaranggi high school baseball tournaments.
Park Kyeong-sik, who coached Mr. Kim in high school, says he always thought the youngster had the right stuff to make it big. “You should have seen him in his senior year. His fastball clocked slightly above 140 kilometers per hour,” he said ― 87 miles an hour. “And there was upside potential to it. What made him even more dangerous as a pitcher was his off-speed pitches. And he had a beautiful curveball, just beautiful,” says Mr. Park.
Upon graduation in 1998, Kim decided not to go to the pros but to enter college. He entered Hanyang University, one of whose alumni is Park Chan-ho, who became Korea’s first U.S. major league player in 1994. “I had a dream,” Mr. Kim said. “Park became our country’s first major leaguer and at the time that was the main thing that appealed to me. In my mind, there was this little hope that one day I would make it just like Park did.”
But soon after he entered Hanyang, his dream was shattered.
His problems started in March 1996, when he became a sophomore. “My right shoulder started to hurt,” he said. “And it hurt badly. It felt like a thousand needles were piercing at the same time.”
Mr. Kim told the team that he would play as a batter until his shoulder healed. He thought the problem was minor and temporary.
After a year of countless physical examinations, including several magnetic resonance imaging examinations, the result was ― no result. Apparently nothing was wrong. No torn ligaments, no surgery needed. That only made his pains worse. “That’s what drove me crazy,” he said. “If there had been a medical cause for my pain, I could have started treatment. The doctors told me nothing was wrong, but the pain was still there.”
His former high school coach, Mr. Park, said that Mr. Kim was not the first to fall to a mysterious injury. “One day you swear you have the arm of a kindergarten student, the next day you throw a complete game. That’s baseball,” he said. “It happens and I don’t know why. Maybe the medical system here is not adequate to deal with injuries like that. I just don’t have the answer.”
Because Mr. Kim was not throwing, only batting, rumors among the scouts spread like wildfire. When, in the winter of 1998, the Korean baseball teams started to draft players for the coming season, Mr. Kim’s phone did not ring.
Nevertheless, he did not give up. He continued to work out at his old high school in hopes that someone would eventually call.
In 2000, his college coach Lee Ki-ho put in a word for him at the Hyundai Unicorns, but he failed to make the final cut.
His final attempt at becoming a professional baseball player came in 2001, when a scout for the Samsung Lions invited him to join the team if he would try to rehabilitate his shoulder. They wanted to give him half a year for the rehab. After two months, Mr. Kim felt he was getting better. “I thought that I was about 66 percent and I started to see some light,” he said.
Now his voice turned hard with anger. “Coming into the third month they asked me whether I was ready to throw 100 percent. I wanted to say yes but I wasn’t there yet and I told them. That’s when they told me to work out at home and wait for a call.” That call never came.
By then, it was time for Mr. Kim to fulfill his mandatory military service. He started to work at a shoe factory, an alternate means of fulfilling his duty that would pay much better and provide money to support his ailing father. But an industrial accident cut some of the flesh off his right index finger, and he had to switch jobs.
Twice a month on weekends, Kim Geon-duk still plays the only sport that he knows and loves. Acting as an all-around player for an amateur team, he started to pick up the game in May. Over his last six games, he had five home runs. Above all, he is still having fun. “When I am done with my service I’ll try to teach baseball. Who knows, maybe something comes along. We’ll see,” Mr. Kim said in a voice that has not yet conceded defeat. At least, not for now.
From time to time he watches Korean pro baseball or U.S. major league games on television. He still feels his adrenaline rising and his heart beating faster. “I still have that fire inside me. I can feel it every time I watch a game,” Mr. Kim said.
A comeback after such a long time away from the game won’t be easy. “He hasn’t played at a competitive level for years and it takes time to build up those muscle memories,” said An Byung-hwan, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “But then there have been special cases. I call them miracles.”
Whatever happens, if Mr. Kim makes a comeback one thing is for sure: He won’t be the first one to do it. Ask Jim Morris.
by Brian Lee