Koreans in MLB are going, going, (almost) goneThere was a time when many thought (including myself) that South Korea would become a pipeline of baseball talent to the U.S. Major Leagues, but that didn’t happen. Park Chan-ho, who became the country’s first major leaguer, is getting older ― he is 33 ― and the number of South Korean baseball players has gradually decreased over the past years. Since 1994, 30 players have signed minor league contracts or tried to make the majors in some way, and 12 succeeded in reaching the big show. From 1994 to 2001, 27 players tried their luck. Since then, only a handful have followed suit. Jung Young-il, 17, of Gwangju Jinheung High School, was the latest player to go abroad. He recently signed with the L.A. Angels.
There are many reasons for this decline. One is that players who go abroad and fail have to complete Korea’s mandatory military service as late as in their early 30s, which would mean the probable end of their athletic career. Many athletes opt to delay their enlistment as late as possible, hoping to get an exemption for making their country proud at the national level.
Park got such a free ticket for playing on the team which finished first overall at the 1998 Asian Games. Those who don’t fall into Park’s caliber can return and find themselves with very few choices left. It’s a dreaded prospect.
Another reason is the contract that talented baseball players can get when they sign with a professional team here instead of signing a minor league contract, which does not guarantee a starting job.
A pitcher like Han Ki-ju, of the Kia Tigers, signed a 1 billion won ($1 million) contract this season. Han was a high school sensation, with the nickname “the beast pitcher,” and he was assured a starting job in the rotation. Had he tried to sign with a U.S. team, he would have earned well below his current contract. Players are hesitant to sign up for the unknown.
When Lee Seung-yeop first tried his luck with some major league teams, he found that no one was willing to shell out the kind of money he thought he deserved. Instead, he could only get a top minor league contract with no assurances. Lee chose to go to Japan, where at least the money was guaranteed. When one considers that South Korean baseball players have been offered contracts ranging from as low as $40,000 to as much as $2.25 million (Seo was the only player to break the $2 million mark), but often within the $1 million range, it is understandable that players often stay here and choose job security. Since Park, only Kim Byung-hyun of the Colorado Rockies and Seo Jae-weong of the Tampa Bay Red Devils have broken into the Major Leagues and managed to stay. That makes the decision to stay seem even easier.
But if this trend continues, after a decade we won’t see any more South Korean players playing with the best. It is a sad reality check. There was always the extra fun involved following Major League Baseball knowing that somewhere a familiar face was playing.
As it is, I keep my fingers crossed that someone breaks through and gives us another fun ride like Park has done or else all this will become a distant memory very soon.
by Brian Lee