Conger emphasizes focus to Giants’ catchers

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Conger emphasizes focus to Giants’ catchers

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The Lotte Giants’ catching coach Hank Conger poses for a photo at Sajik Baseball Stadium in Busan. [LOTTE GIANTS]

After playing in the United States and in Mexico, the Lotte Giants’ catching coach Hank Conger has made his way to his parent’s home country to help strengthen the club’s biggest weakness — the catchers.

With seven seasons in the major leagues as a catcher and a total of 11 seasons since he got drafted, Conger’s experience is expected to strengthen the Giants catchers’ abilities, which have been continuously mentioned as the team’s biggest weakness. Although the Giants had a disappointing 2019 season, finishing last for the first time in 15 years, the fans have some newfound hope after their new general manager Sung Min-kyu appointed Conger as the club’s new coach for the catchers for the upcoming season.

Over the past two seasons, the Giants were harshly criticized for the poor performance of their catchers. But Conger tried his best to avoid looking too much into these negatives reviews and chose to see their skills himself.

“Once I got the job, I kind of found out because my parents and also my wife’s parents, they always look online and looked at the articles,” Conger said. “And I guess there were a lot of articles about the catchers. I didn’t want to watch any of the highlights or anything like that because I wanted to get my own first impression of the catchers in spring training. But at the same time, I knew that once I got here, I would have to work really hard to try to make sure that we all get better as a team.”

Born to Korean parents who both moved to the United States, Conger was raised in California. He always dreamed of playing in the KBO but ended up making it to the league as a coach instead.

“I think for me, whenever I was done in the major league, I always wanted to come over to Korea to play baseball,” Conger said. “I had a couple of injuries so it didn’t kind of happen. But that was always one of my dreams. I always wanted to play in the KBO after I was done, it just never kind of came up.”

Conger’s original name is Hyun Choi Conger. Despite his Korean heritage, Conger has an interesting story behind his name.

“My real name in American is Hyun Choi Conger,” Conger said. “Here, it would be Choi Hyun. My dad, both of his parents passed away very young. So he was adopted by his aunt and uncle.”

His father took his adoptive parents but gave both Conger and his brother his real surname, Choi, as their middle names.

“My grandpa, when I was a young kid — I lived in Seattle in the States — he had a tough time pronouncing Hyun,” Conger said. “He just couldn’t say Hyun. He grew up in Georgia and his favorite baseball player was Hank Aaron. So he was like, ‘You know what. I’m just going to start calling you Hank.’ So that’s how I got my name Hank.”

After returning to Korea, Conger chose to still use the name Hank rather than Hyun. However, Conger said he is considering changing his name to Choi Hyun. He may not be able to speak Korean fluently, but he can still understand the language as his mother spoke to him in Korean.

“When I was younger, my mom, because [it’s her] primary language,” Conger said. “She came over to the United States when she was like maybe 25, between 30 years old. So even when I was younger, she would talk to me in Korean, even though I replied back in English. When we were younger, even living in the States, we were very traditional.”

Conger turned professional by getting drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2006. Then in 2010, he finally made his debut in the big league. Throughout his seven years in the major league, Conger played for the Angels, the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays. However, Conger had to end his career earlier than expected due to a wrist surgery.

Following the surgery, he hoped to make a comeback by playing in Mexico, even though he hadn’t fully recovered from the surgery.
“A year before that, I was in Triple A and I didn’t have that good of a season and then I had surgery on my wrist,” Conger said. “I played in Mexico but I wasn’t 100 percent healthy. So if look back on that, I had a good experience playing in Mexico, but I should have probably just maybe waited until my injury got better.”

Conger ended up retiring as a pro at only age 30. He may have ended his career early, but throughout his seven seasons in the majors he got to build a special friendship with Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers.

“Just between Korean heritage, I think we had a good bond,” Conger said. “And then for him, he’s a lot different than a lot of the Korean players because he came up through the minors in the U.S. So he knows kind of the difficult road and how hard it is to make the major leagues up through the minors.”

When asked if he has any regrets about retiring at such an early age, Conger says was no.

“Not really,” Conger said. “Obviously, as a baseball player, you have pride. So you want to play as long as you can. But for me, I played seven seasons in the major leagues and close to about 11 seasons professionally since I got drafted. I’m very happy with how my career was.”

Looking at the Giants’ team last year, the club’s biggest problem was their catchers. Their skills were ranked last among the 10 clubs in the KBO when looking at the statistics. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons Sung asked Conger to join the club, as Conger has great framing and catching skills. The timing worked out perfectly because Conger was ready to get back into the sport when he got the offer.

“I was pretty surprised, but I was pretty happy about it because at that point, I think I wanted to kind of start my coaching career,” Conger said. “After I was done playing in Mexico, mentally, baseball, I just wanted to give myself almost a year break. Just not do anything and just kind of do what I wanted to do and stuff. So at that time when he contacted me, I was kind of ready to get back in the baseball.”

Since Conger can’t speak Korean, just like any other foreign coach, he’s had some trouble communicating with his players, but thanks to a translator, he’s made some strides. As the Giants also hired Ryan Long as a batting coach, the club hired their own translators.

“Although I can’t completely understand English, I can understand well through [his] body motions and translator,” said the Giants catcher Ji Seong-jun.

Since communication between Conger and his players was difficult without the translator, when he first got to spring training, he started off by trying to figure out the players’ personalities.

“I think the biggest thing was when I got to spring training,” Conger said. “I think one of my goals was really trying to get to know the personalities of all, at the time four catchers, because Na Jong-deok was there too. To try to understand their personalities first and then kind of incorporate what we do catching-wise, based on how they react.”

After months of working with the Giants’ catchers, one of the biggest things Conger emphasizes is focus.

“The biggest thing mentally is just I want them to anticipate,” Conger said. “Like have focus every single pitch and understand that if they pitch off mentally, it can be a big problem or big difference in the game. If they miss a ball or they don’t put a 100 percent in a block. So that for me is probably the biggest key and the biggest thing that we’ve been trying to teach our catcher in camp. And they are doing a very good job at it.”

In terms of techniques, Conger emphasizes the players’ efforts to block the pitches during games.

“Blocking is really hard,” Conger said. “You can do whatever you can and it can hit a bone or something and kind of fly away. So for me, it’s like making sure they do the technique properly. The effort is there, always. As far [as they] try to block a ball and if they can do that, the ball can bounce and it can bounce over whatever, but as long as they do that, I’ll never be mad at the effort they give, catching wise.”

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG, KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]
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