Kim overcomes difficulty and swings his way to success

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Kim overcomes difficulty and swings his way to success

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Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles has had a roller coaster ride in Major League Baseball (MLB) but is now being compared to the living baseball legend Ichiro Suzuki of Japan.

Kim, who had a decorated career in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), joined the big league after leading the team to top the Korean Series last year.

Confidence was so high in Kim as a sure-thing that the Orioles and manager Buck Showalter signed him to a two-year contract worth $7 million. Known for his ability to reach bases, the Orioles coaching staff and the local media in Baltimore praised Kim as a “batting machine” who would increase the Orioles’ on-base percentage (OBP). Kim himself was determined to see success on the American stage and said, “I will not return to Korea with a label that says I have failed in the United States,” before he boarded the plane bound for the MLB.

But the MLB turned out to be a more ruthless place than Kim had expected. It took less than a month for the popular view of Kim to make an about-face. Unable to adjust to the fastballs of the big league, he suffered tremendously during the spring exhibition games, going 8-for-45 or .178 batting average (BA). After a poor showing during spring camp, both Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette changed their mind about Kim and sought to exclude him from the 25-man roster that would begin the season. They did what they could to relegate the 27-year-old Korean outfielder to the minor league, and the local media helped, calling for Kim’s ouster and suggesting a Rule 5 draft pick of Joey Rickard, who was not considered a contender for a spot on the roster before, as a favorite for Kim’s position.

But Kim was rigid about his position, exercising his contractual right to refuse the demotion. With their best bet being to get Kim to step down voluntarily, the coaching staff even withheld him from any spring games towards the end of March. But Kim stayed and eventually remained a fixture atop the opening day roster for the Orioles. His reputation as a “batting machine,” however, quickly faded. By the beginning of the season, he was nothing but an “Ugly Duckling” in the eyes of the Orioles coaching staff and fans, and by the opening game of the season, Kim was booed at Camden Yards when he was introduced before the game.

He found himself less and less on the field, not even as a substitute. But he made it clear he had no intention of returning to Korea as a failure, and fought on. His opponent and training partner while he was a pariah in the team was the pitching machine. Kim smashed thousands of balls fired by the pitching machine with a velocity of over 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour). He never took a day off, according to the Orioles batting coach Scott Coolbaugh.

That practice, which went on night and day, is finally paying off. Now Kim is nearing the threshold of being a regular in the starting lineup, not to mention regaining his reputation as a “batting machine.” The Baltimore Sun, the local newspaper that covers the Orioles, even recently dubbed Kim “our Ichiro Suzuki,” citing his ability to get to bases.

“Bat him lead-off, let him get on base and put Adam Jones’ big bat and the others behind him,” read an article from the Baltimore Sun on June 22. “If [Joey] Rickard is so good, bat him second and then bring on the big guns. But to ignore the simple math and not bat Mr. Kim first seems like madness and to ignore him in an article where discussing him should be obvious and interesting is either ignorant or rude.” The article even added that Kim “very rightly declined to make his hitting adjustments off-contract in the minors.”

His propensity to hit ground balls, which was derided as a fatal weakness for a batter during the spring league, is now considered his forte, with local media saying “not all ground balls are created equally,” and “no one hit ground balls that hard last season.”

Kim played in six games in April, recording a .600 BA over the month. By May, he found himself in 12 different games, only to continue to show up more for the Orioles in June, playing in 18 games as of Sunday. He has essentially secured his starting position as the second batter and left outfielder of the Orioles. Consistently making contact at the plate, his BA as of Sunday stands at .339 and his OBP is .424, as first expected by the Orioles before the spring. Now, Kim’s disastrous introduction in March seems to be all in the past, forgotten by Orioles fans who cheer him on loudly every time he steps onto the field.

Even Showalter has changed his mind about Kim. “He’s getting a lot of opportunities,” Showalter said. “He’s taking advantage of them. I’m happy for him, because he’s been good through everything, and has a lot of respect for what’s going on here.”

“I think I am quite lucky these days,” said Kim. “Changeups are still hard, I need more practice.”

During the first game of split doubleheader against Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, which the Orioles defeated the Rays 5-0, Kim went 1-for-3, hitting a double, while driving in one run and walking to first base twice with two base-on-balls.

BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]
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