New career blooms for home run kingJang Jong-hun joined the Hanhwa Eagles, then known as Bingrae, in 1987 as a trainee, but within three years proceeded to shatter all Korean professional baseball records. Jang was the home run leader for three consecutive years starting in 1990 and created the legend of a trainee-turned-home run king.
Now 37-years-old, Mr. Jang retired last month and began a new career as the coach of the minor league Hanwha Eagles. Mr. Jang was recently invited to play at the All Star Game in Incheon last Saturday. It was a special consideration for him as a retiree, and was going to be his last All Star Game after playing in it for 10 years. Though Jang hit an easy fly that day, he was awarded a trophy for his contribution to Korean baseball.
Mr. Jang was interviewed in the team’s home ground in Daejeon.
Mr. Jang was as busy as before even after moving to the minor leagues.
“The major league has a tight game schedule, but the minor league is a little different,” Mr, Jang said. “But I have to come to the ground early in the morning and have become much busier.”
His responsibility is to help train minor league players. He throws balls during batting practice, showing rookies how to hit defensive bunts and correcting batting styles.
It was his large physique that led him to a career in baseball. He is 1.85 meters (six feet) tall, and weighs 96 kilograms (211 pounds).
Mr. Jang was on the judo team when he was at Yongdam Elementary School in Cheongju, North Chungcheong province, and back then his friends nicknamed him “pig.” He was in the fifth grade and practicing breakfalls when he first saw students playing baseball and was attracted to it straight away.
Later, when he wanted to go to college, his school, Sekwang High School in Cheongju, did not do well in competitions. Mr. Jang was not entitled to preferential admission benefits to enter university. He was not from a very notable family either ― his father, who owned an orchard, tried to get his son into a college, but the college wanted a donation to financially support its team.
Mr. Jang, the son of an ordinary farmer, had no choice but to start as a trainee at Bingrae. His monthly wage was 400,000 won ($392), but he was happy that he could continue to play baseball. He practiced swinging all night.
Mr. Jang has been lauded with many accolades such as “a man of records,” “a living legend” and “a legendary trainee.” He himself prefers “a country boy” the one given him by Bingrae manager Gang Byeong-cheol because of his authentic Chungcheong provincial dialect and big smile.
Currently Mr. Jang holds records in eight categories - most homers (340), most games played (1,949), most at-bats (6,290), most earned runs (1,043), most base hits (3,172), most walks (997), and most strikeouts (1,353).
“Before I thought home runs were important, but after being in the minor leagues, I realized that there is something that is more crucial,” he said. “And that is playing in the most games.”
“I played baseball for a long time, but I neglected something very important. I realized that there is a record only when you are in the game,” Jang said.
How much could the best slugger in Korea earn? Shim Jeong-su became a free agent this year and signed a four-year, six billion won ($5.7 million) contract with the Samsung Lions. Over 19 years as a baseball player, Mr. Jang made only 1.4 billion won.
“I was not on a spending spree, but including my apartment and all, my entire assets are worth less than 1 billion won,” he said.
“When I was in my heyday, players did not make much money. I was playing at the wrong time,” he said.
In 1996, Mr. Jang met his wife, Yun Ju-hee, through a friend. His wife studied arts and was a beautiful woman.
The couple have two sons ― 9-year-old Hyeon-jun, who is not interested in baseball, and Hyeon-u, 5, who has some talents.
“If Hyeon-u wants to become a baseball player, I would not hold him back,” Mr. Jang said.
If he becomes a homerun leader like his father, he would make much more money than I did, he added.
Asked what kind of a coach he wants to be, Mr. Jang said, “When I was a player, I was confident that I would make a good coach. But after I retired, I grew worried and concerned.”
Although he has not discussed it with the team, he hopes to go to the United States and attend a training camp for coaches.
“I had my fill of being a player, and want to spend another 20 years as a coach,” Mr. Jang concluded.
by Sung Baik-you