Want to play front-office baseball? Do it right

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Want to play front-office baseball? Do it right

Last week, the Doosan Bears, the runner-up in the 2013 Korean Series, fired their manager, Kim Jin-wook, as soon as the hot stove season ended. Days before Kim was fired, the club traded infielder Yoon Suk-min to the Nexen Heroes for outfielder Jang Min-suk.

Fans were outraged, not only because the coach who had led the team to the Korea Baseball Organization’s postseason for two consecutive years was fired but also because the Bears traded a young prospect who is expected to be their future cleanup hitter. The club said the trade was made because they needed someone to replace center fielder Lee Jong-wook, but it doesn’t look like Jang, who hit .242 with 20 steals last season, could replace Lee, who hit .307 with 30 steals. It looked more like the team was cleaning house. Kim often said that the club needed to groom Yoon to be the team’s leading hitter. Yoon was a key player when Kim was the coach of Inchang High School’s baseball team.

The club said it needed a better coach who can lead their young players to win next season’s Korean Series - then appointed its Futures’ League team coach, Song Il-soo, as the new manager. No matter how well he managed the minor team last season, it looks like he won’t be able to give the Bears a chance to win next year’s title because they’ve lost key players, and there is no sensational rookie like Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Bears’ farm system.

“Coaches on KBO teams have been losing their influence while the power of the officials in the front office has been strengthened,” said Kim Sung-keun, a former SK Wyverns skipper who was also fired in 2011 after he came into conflict with the team’s front office. “Korean baseball has been under control by non-baseball-related people recently.”

Kim Jin-wook was the seventh coach in KBO history to be fired after losing a Korean Series.

The Bears’ front office is led by Kim Seung-young, who became the club’s president in 2011 after working for many years as its marketing department chief, and Kim Tae-ryong, who became the general manager in 2004. They have the same goal: building a strong front office that can efficiently manage the ball club.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that we would limit the authority of the skipper, who actually knows better than we do about baseball,” General Manager Kim said.

However, sources inside the club said the fired manager came into conflict with the Bears during the hot stove season after the team lost its best players and the disputes got worse when the club traded infielder Yoon to the Heroes. The coach, who was staying in Japan, was summoned to Seoul for the team’s season-ending training session in Seoul and dismissed.

Korean teams that play so-called front-office baseball, like the Bears and SK Wyverns, say they are following the model of Major League Baseball teams, in which general managers take a huge role in running a club. They acquire players and develop plans for the club’s future, then explain those plans to their coaching staff, fans and media. All a skipper needs to do is to manage games on the field. The general managers are contract-based employees. If they can’t produce an outcome that satisfies ownership and fans, they get fired.

In Korea, every team except the Nexen Heroes is run by the country’s major conglomerates and those tycoons appoint someone they trust as the general manager or president of the club. Many general managers have never worn a baseball glove or worked for a team. Many of them were once officials in a conglomerate’s construction or engineering company. They have no accountability even if their club finishes at the bottom of the league for four to five consecutive seasons. There are rumors that the Bears fired Kim because he wanted the Doosan Group to spend big money on re-signing their veterans.

When Kim Jin-wook was named as the new coach in the middle of the 2011 season, analysts pointed out he had no managing experience and said the club would struggle in big games such as the Korean Series. These worries were realized in this past Korean Series. The Bears led the best-of-seven series, 3-1, but lost the next three games. Analysts blamed Kim’s poor pitching changes as one of the biggest reasons in losing the series.

After firing Kim, the Bears said they wanted someone who could lead the club in big games, but the person they hired as the new skipper was Song. Just like Kim, he had never managed a KBO ball club and he doesn’t speak Korean fluently as he is a Korean-Japanese. The club said there is no problem because Song “understands about 90 percent of what players and other staff says,” but it looks like they just hired someone who can be easily manipulated.

In the history of baseball, however, “front-office baseball” has never worked efficiently. In the 1990s, the front office of the Samsung Lions had greater power than the skipper. They often intervened in trading and acquiring players, and sometimes even other baseball operations. In general, most teams in the KBO considered such things as the rite of coaches. The Lions never won a championship in that period. In 2000, the Lions changed their strategy, hiring Kim Euong-yong, who now manages the Hanwha Eagles, as the coach and gave him the full authority to run the club. Two years later, the Lions won their first Korean Series title.

The SK Wyverns had a similar history. The Wyverns struggled at the bottom of the league after being established in 2000. In 2007, they hired Kim Sung-keun, who was known as a manager with overwhelming charisma in running a club. The Wyverns advanced to the Korean Series for six straight seasons until 2011 and won three of them. The Wyverns failed to advance to the postseason this year after firing Kim.

The Bears won’t be a contender team in the next few years.

BY KWON SANG-SOO [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]
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