[In depth interview]First foreign baseball manager is a hitBusan has a new hero. His name, Jerry Royster, has come to sudden prominence.
The 56-year-old looks nothing like the Koreans he works with. His Korean speaking skills leave much to be desired.
However, Royster, the first American manager of the Busan-based Lotte Giants, is now regarded as a superstar in the country’s second-largest city, about 400 kilometers (248 miles) south of Seoul.
Busan fans have given the coach a Korean name, Je Il-ho, meaning No. 1.
Six years ago, Koreans also called their national soccer team head coach, Guus Hiddink, by a Korean name, Heo Dong-gyu.
Hiddink is considered a national hero, having led the Korean soccer team to the final four in the 2002 World Cup, jointly hosted by Korea and Japan.
Busan is known as the No.1 baseball city in Korea. The Lotte Giants have consistently been one of the league’s most popular teams. Its fans are also known as the loudest and most passionate supporters of any team. Busan’s enthusiastic fans are often compared with the boisterous Chicago Cubs fans in U.S. Major League Baseball.
Yet, the Giants have struggled to win games. The team has not advanced to the postseason since 2000.
After Royster became manager late last year, the former Major League Baseball head coach transformed the Giants from a weakling into a force to be reckoned with by introducing numerous changes.
The fruits of his tireless efforts are reflected in his team’s current standing.
As of April 24, the Giants ranked second in the league with 12 wins and 6 losses. The Giants last won the league championship in 1992, a 16-year drought in the Korean Baseball Organization, which is only 27 years old.
Royster has promised to sing the fight song of the Giants fans, “Busan Seagulls,” after he brings the team back to the postseason.
That is why these days he is spending his spare time learning the song in Korean. The song is actually a Korean pop tune that has been adopted by baseball fanatics.
“I really want to sing the song in front of Giants fans in the fall,” Royster said. “It is going to be very interesting.”
A veteran coach, Royster has his own coaching style. His team training emphasizes three things: Be aggressive, be focused and don’t be afraid of failure.
“I think that having the three parts motivates change,” he said. “Korean players tend to fear failure, but giving up is a bigger failure. On the other hand, their enthusiasm for baseball is the best in the world. Their attitude is also good.”
Royster has also put all of the Giants players through advanced Major League Baseball-style training.
“I do not know Korean baseball that well. I have just taught them the knowledge that I accumulated in Major League Baseball,” he said. “Some people said that our training was not long enough, but I am sure that we spent more time practicing than the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.”
The coach also talks every day with Giants general manager Lee Sang-gu to come up with good ideas for the development of the team.
“I make efforts to improve the image of the Lotte Giants,” he said. “I am trying to build a good relationship with the team’s front office. My duty is to lead the Giants to be an excellent baseball club.”
On and off the field, Royster expresses special care for his players; teammates, he believes, are a family. He tries to memorize the names of players as well as their family members’ names. During spring training, he calls each player by name, even though the Korean pronunciation is not easy for him.
“I am interested in the lives of players because their private lives might affect their performance on the field,” he said. “I have memorized my players’ names. I recently tried to memorize their family members’ names, too.”
Royster brings to the job an impressive track record from his careers as both a Major League Baseball player and head coach.
He said he was totally unfamiliar with Korean baseball until a close friend, Bobby Valentine, the head coach of Lotte Chiba Marines in the Japanese Pro-Baseball League, suggested that he consider managing a baseball team in Korea.
“I braced for the new challenge to contribute to the development of the Korean baseball league,” Royster said. “Before accepting the head coaching job, I talked a lot with Bobby, staying in Japan for 10 days.”
His first impression of Korean baseball was “very good.”
The rookie coach said that other head coaches in the league gave him a warm reception.
“Korean baseball teams are very strong. They have the skills to compete with other national teams in international baseball. There are also a lot of competitive players in the league,” he said.
As an expatriate in Korea away from home, he tries to adapt.
“My favorite Korean foods are bulgogi and galbi,” he said. “I also like to eat watery plain kimchi.”
“Busan is so beautiful, with both the sea and mountains. Old and new buildings harmonize with each other,” Royster said.
During his spare time, he enjoys playing golf. He said he started playing when he was 20 years old.
“I play golf every Monday. Golf is very important for a better social life,” he said. “I heard that there are many good golf courses in Korea. I would like to go to them.”
However, the expat life is not easy. A divorced father of two daughters, he said he sometimes misses his daughters so much.
“I overcome my loneliness by chatting online with my daughters,” Royster said.
Born in 1952 in Sacramento, California, Royster made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1973. He played in a total of 1,428 games as a second and third baseman as well as a shortstop for 16 years for five Major League Baseball teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees.
After retiring from the Braves in 1988, he took lessons on becoming a coach and finally became a coach for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1999.
Three years later, he was appointed manager of the Brewers. Before he became the first foreigner ever to take the helm of a Korean pro-baseball team, he coached the Dodgers’ minor league team.
By Jeong Hei-hun JoongAng Ilbo [email@example.com]