Gwangju’s top export

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Gwangju’s top export

Three out of five Korean baseball players in the U.S. Major Leagues come from Gwangju, an impressive statistic. And 60 percent of them played at Kwangju Jeil High School, another impressive fact. Since there are only five Koreans in the majors, attention is focused on how this provincial school produces the exceptions.
The five Koreans in the major leagues are Kim Byung-hyun, a closer for the Boston Red Sox, Seo Jae-weung, a pitcher for the New York Mets, Choi Hee-seop, a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs, Park Chun-ho, a pitcher for the Texas Rangers and Bong Jung-geun, a reliever for the Atlanta Braves. All are Jeil alumni except Park and Bong.
No one has analyzed the air, looking for a super germ that imparts super-human strength. No one has sampled the vegetation on Mount Jiri, a towering symbol of local pride, searching for herbs that defeat fatigue. Questions about Jeil’s success can be answered with three words: training, attitude, tradition.

On a hot September morning, about two dozen boys clad in white baseball uniforms warm up in synchronization with the monotone commands of the team captain. They have been on the field 30 minutes, warming their muscles before the 9:30 practice begins. A stocky, middle-aged man wearing sunglasses steps forward, eyeballing each player. In one motion, the boys bow, removing their caps, thundering Annyeonghasipnikka, or “hello.” The man nods his head. He is Heo Sae-hwan, 42, the team's skipper, and himself an alumnus of Kwangju Jeil's baseball program.
“Let’s do it right boys!” yells Mr. Heo as he settles into the lone chair on the field. The coach and his boys have a legacy to uphold: Baseball teams fielded by Jeil have won 15 national championships since the school was established 83 years ago.
Choi Jae-hyeon, a sophomore outfielder and third in the batting order, takes a cut at a ball tossed by a teammate. Choi is one of the many Jeil players dreaming of making it to the Major Leagues. “I watch Choi Hee-seop’s games whenever I can. I am not as big as he is, but I am still growing,” says Choi with determination, pointing his thumb at his chest to emphasize his point. “We share the same last name. There must be some connection, you know?”
On the pitching mound, Kim Sang-hun, another sophomore, throws pitch after pitch to an assistant coach, Kim Min-hwan, a former teammate and friend of Seo Jae-weung, the New York Mets hurler. Coach Kim aims an incessant verbal barrage at Sang-hun, who seems unflappable. He already has thrown 40 pitches, about one third of his daily workout. Taking his coach’s advice, he alters his form and throws another ball. “Better. Think of a Ping-Pong ball. Imagine yourself trying to push one toward me. Use your fingers!” the coach yells.
Wiping his wet forehead, Sang-hun says his sights are set on the major leagues as well, alluding to the star of the Boston Red Sox as his inspiration. “I have the same pitching style as Kim Byung-hyun and I saw him practicing here once. I will never forget that.”
During the season the team works out until 6:30 in the evening. Winter workouts are longer and more intense, with players lifting weights and running cross-country courses to build stamina. Training usually ends in the cold of night, about three hours after sunset.
Coach Heo concedes that players have little time to study, a strike against them at this academically competitive school. But this conundrum is found at most high schools in Korea, and it is accepted as a necessary evil. An athlete’s entrance into college is based on his on-the-field performance rather than test scores and grade point average. “I don’t like it. But unless the system changes there is nothing much I can do,” Heo says.

At Jeil, a sense of sacrifice and dedication is apparent from the ground up -- literally. Except for the big tournaments, all games and practices take place on dirt fields. The team’s budget, including Heo’s salary, comes mostly from parents’ donations. Each family with a boy on the team provides 200,000 won ($170) per month for expenses. The school’s alumni association makes hefty contributions. Equipment is donated by the Kia Tigers, Gwangju’s professional team. “We have it better than most. But still there are areas where we could improve,” Heo says.
“We take baseball very seriously here. To us it’s a religion,” says Oh Cheol-yeon, an alumnus of the school. During the off-season, Seo, the New York Mets’ pitcher, is among the professional players who return to Jeil to train.

Support from the school’s alumni never sags. Each time a Jeil team makes it to the national championships a convoy of buses transports fans to Seoul, where all the major tournaments are played. An Internet site carries updates on the Jeil players in the Major Leagues and the team’s performance in the tournaments. During the season, alumni rent rooms in restaurants to eat and drink and discuss baseball; these meetings help boost morale if the team is having one of its rare losing seasons and turn into raucous celebrations when it is in the hunt for a trophy, which is usually the case.
“If you ask me I would say that the tradition here has attracted the best talent in the country,” Heo says. “With three major leaguers, the bar has been raised. Recruiting isn’t a problem. They all want to be part of this.”
Jeil not only exports players to America, it also supplies the local and regional markets. Fifteen of its former players, including Lee Jong-beom, a star outfielder for the Kia Tigers, are scattered around the eight professional teams in Korea. Seon Dong-yeol, who retired from the Junichi Dragons in 1999, was the first Korean to play in Japan. As a closer he established the single season record of 38 saves in 1997.
The coaches’ guidance produces a confident player, but meeting the Jeil legends supercharges the entire team.
“I don’t know what they tell our youngsters but whatever it is, it is good for practice. The kids just work like crazy,” Heo says with a chuckle.

by Brian Lee
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