All-star shortstop truly looks the part
Off the field, Son, the baby-faced 25-year-old, is just a kid with a quick smile. On the field, though, the diminutive star, who won this year’s Golden Glove as the best defensive shortstop, plays like a giant.
In his high school days, professional and university scouts hardly paid attention to Son, thinking that a man who was under the average height of a Korean male couldn’t possibly compete with bigger players. When his teammates were being heavily recruited by scouts, Son’s future was still frustratingly unclear.
“I blamed my genes then, because my parents aren’t that tall either,” he recalled. “I remember feeling so much regret that I even picked up the game in the first place.”
He added that the lack of attention hurt even more, because no one had ever told him that he was a bad player.
But in his final year of high school, Son had the chance of a lifetime.
Kim Kwang-soo, his current bench coach with the Bears and an alumnus of the same high school, recommended Son to a contemporary from his playing days, Kim Min-ho, who at that time was the founding manager of Dongeui University’s team in Busan.
Kim Kwang-soo, who owns the Korean baseball record for fewest errors by a second baseman in a season with two and for the longest errorless game streak of 63, is actually shorter than Son, listed at 168 centimeters. More than almost anyone in the game, he knows that a person’s height and his skill at baseball have nothing to do with each other.
Kim followed Son’s high school career closely, and told his friend Kim, “Look, try to see me in this kid. You won’t be disappointed.”
Son then made it to Dongeui’s fledgling squad, with the determination to prove wrong those who felt his height would prevent him from becoming a professional baseball player.
Son’s struggles to deal with prejudice about his stature brings to mind the similar situation faced by Kim Jae-park, arguably the nation’s best shortstop of all time. At 174 centimeters, Kim himself didn’t exactly cut an imposing figure, and with no other teams calling, he joined the Yeungnam University team in its premiere season.
Currenty the manager of the Hyundai Unicorns, Kim later said the one comment that hurt him the most was, “This guy is a good player, but he’s too small.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as surprise that when he was growing up, Son’s baseball idol was another relatively short player, Park Jung-tae, who at 174 centimeters won five Golden Gloves for second base during a 14-year career with the Lotte Giants that included a two-year rehabilitation stint because of a serious knee injury.
“I looked up to him because he wasn’t a tall player himself,” Son said of Park, whose aggressive style of play earned him the moniker “Tank.”
At Dongeui University, Son led the up-and-coming team so well that he attracted the attention of professional scouts.
The newfound interest in Son, however, didn’t translate into much in the beginning. No team drafted him after his graduation.
Undeterred, Son tried out for the Bears before the 2003 season and made the team as a practice squad player ― someone who mostly rides the benches during the season, and who plays catch with veteran players or even throws batting practice pitches on off-days.
Son did appear in 59 games in 2003, hitting .220 in 141 at-bats. But it was his defensive abilities that opened the eyes of the coaches, who made him a full-time starter at shortstop the following season.
In 2004, Son represented the Bears in the All-Star game, and the culmination of his young, burgeoning career came at the end of this season with the Golden Glove honors.
“Ask young, short ball players who their favorite pro is,” said Yoon Hyuk, who recruited Son for the Bears, “most of them will say it’s Son Si-hun.”
From a little-known high school player and an undrafted university graduate to a practice squad player, an All-Star, and now a Golden Glove winner, Son has made leaps in his baseball career that once seemed impossible.
These achievements speak volumes about Son’s resiliency and relentlessness, perhaps even more so than about his baseball talent.
“You know, it’s like what Napoleon once said,” he continued. “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.”
by Lee Tai-il
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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