[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] They don't come more Samsung blue than Kim Sang-su
For Samsung Lions infielder Kim Sang-su, there's something special about the color blue.
From the white and blue of the Samsung Lions kit to the white and blue of the Korean national team kit, Kim's entire professional career has been played in a jersey that is at least partially blue.
“Even my favorite color is blue,” Kim says. “So Samsung’s blue has a pretty special meaning for me.”
Born and raised in Daegu, Kim has always considered that Samsung blue to have been a big part of his life. But while the Lions have always been his baseball team, growing up, Kim was actually more interested in becoming a professional football player.
It was the influence of his father that changed young Kim's mind.
“My father used to play baseball,” Kim says. “I have memories of going to the baseball stadium and playing with him. So I said I also like baseball and that I want to play. That’s how it started.”
Kim's father was actually good enough to get drafted by the Taepyeongyang Dolphins, the KBO team that went on to become the Hyundai Unicorns before going defunct in 2007. The elder Kim chose not to go pro, instead playing amateur baseball in the exact same position that made his son famous: Shortstop.
But baseball skill isn't hereditary, and Kim has had to work hard to establish himself in his father's footsteps. Luckily, through all the ups and downs, his love for the sport has never wavered.
“Firstly, I thought it was enjoyable,” Kim says. “The reactions I got from the people around me as I got better played a big part. My family was struggling financially, but watching my parents and my brother support me made me keep going.”
Still, it wasn't until Kim reached middle school when he started seriously considering a career in baseball.
Like many young professional players to-be in Korea, Kim spent his childhood rattling between a number of different positions. It has become fairly common for budding pros to play both pitcher and batter all the way into high school, before settling on a final position heading into the draft.
Kim is no exception. After growing up playing as both a pitcher and a shortstop, Kim ended up choosing to be a position player.
“Honestly, there are a lot of cases where you change your position as you head into middle and high school,” Kim says. “Up until fifth grade, I tried being a catcher and an outfielder. In sixth grade, that’s when I started playing shortstop. I started to realize that I was fast. I was good at shortstop, liked playing there and heard compliments from other people. I think [shortstop] just came to me naturally.”
Kim's decision was the right one and even back in high school, he started to make a name for himself. At the time there were four hugely impressive high school shortstops — Kim, his teammate Lee Hak-ju, Heo Kyoung-min of the Doosan Bears and An Chi-hong of the Lotte Giants — and the four of them became the face of the future of Korean baseball.
All four players earned a spot on the Korean U-18 national baseball team to lead the country to a win at the 2008 World Junior AAA Championship in Alberta, Canada.
In fact, Kim's talent even caught the eye of a foreign scout, as he received an offer from a major league club. In the end, he chose the Lions.
“I was in high school before I got drafted by Samsung,” Kim says. “I was given the offer, so our family had a serious discussion.”
Kim says that if he had chosen to head to the United States, his mother and younger brother planned to come along with him, but his father would have been left behind in Korea.
“I thought about it a lot,” Kim says. “But now that I think about it, I think it was a great decision to stay with Samsung.”
Kim will never know what could have been if he had headed to the big league, but having watched a number of Korean players return to Korea after things didn't work out in the majors, he doesn't regret his decision.
Lucky No. 7
Having seen such high-profile success with the national youth team, Kim entered the KBO with some high expectations on his young shoulders. Despite that, Kim says he didn't feel like he was under a lot of pressure.
Instead, he feels a lot more pressure and responsibility today.
“At the time, I was young,” Kim says. “And there were a lot of great players on our team because we were really good. So at the time, rather than feel pressure, all I needed to do was go out there and play my best.”
Perhaps, the biggest difference he felt by joining the KBO was that he got to play alongside the players that he used to watch on TV.
“It was pretty cool,” Kim says. “But at the same time, I doubted myself by asking if I would be able to survive here.”
Kim debuted in the No. 2 jersey. He specifically chose that number because he was a huge Derek Jeter fan. At the end of 2010, after his second season in the KBO, he changed his jersey number to No. 7 after former Lions player Park Jin-man left the team to join the SK Wyverns as a free agent.
No. 7 had been Kim's number since middle school.
“I used No. 7 since middle school,” Kim says. “So I had some affection for the number. At the time, I also liked Derek Jeter. No. 7 has also been with me throughout my youth career, both in the bad and the good times. So I would say No. 7 is a special number.”
His reason for choosing No. 7 was simple: because it’s a lucky number and he thinks he plays better when he wears it.
As a young shortstop who had already proven himself on the international stage, Kim had an easy route to the KBO. He was drafted first by the Lions in 2008, and as soon as his rookie season started in 2009, Kim debuted in the KBO.
In fact, he was immediately added to the starting entry.
“I played well throughout spring training, so I was assigned as leadoff in the season opener,” Kim says. “I was struck out in my first two at-bats, so I was immediately aware that the standard in the pro league is high and that I wanted to play well. On my third at-bat, I just decided to swing the bat and hit a double.”
His rookie season wasn’t too bad as he managed to appear in 97 games and finished with a .244 batting average. In his second season, Kim got to appear in slightly more games, at 101, and every year since, except the 2017 season when he struggled with injuries, he has played in more than 100 games each season.
Kim joined the the Lions at the time when they were the team to beat in the KBO.
Although Samsung has struggled to qualify for the postseason since the 2016 season, the Lions were once the dominant team. After Kim made his debut with the Lions in 2009, the club won four straight Korean Series titles from 2011 to 2014.
In both the 2010 and 2015 seasons, the Lions lost the Korean Series title to the Bears. In his rookie season in 2009, the club failed to qualify for the postseason.
Kim is one of the few members on the squad to have experienced both the highest and lowest moments with the Lions.
There have been a lot of ups and downs for both Kim and the club, but his consistent spot in the squad allowed Kim to go on to become the youngest free agent ever in the KBO. Following the 2018 season, Kim earned his free agent status at just 28 years old.
Kim ultimately chose to stay with the Lions, signing a three-year contract at a maximum of 1.8 billion won ($1.66 million). Since the free agent market at the time was full of a lot of big-name, expensive players, Kim’s contract was not as impressive as he might have expected.
As he was still young, Kim could have waited another year or two and perhaps have landed a bigger contract, but he says that he never regretted his decision to become a free agent, as it was the moment that changed his career.
“During the three years before I became an FA, I was struggling a bit,” Kim says. “As a result, I wasn’t given the [offer] that I was expecting, and I had to take a long look at myself. It helped me to understand what I should do from now on, what I have to do to show them I’ve changed and how I should be approaching baseball in general. Signing that FA contract changed me.”
A shortstop no longer
Although baseball fans of a certain age still remember those four great shortstops that were going to change Korean baseball, the truth is that Kim — and Heo of the Bears — don't actually play shortstop very often.
“Shortstop is the position that allowed me to come to the pros,” Kim says. “Even after I joined the pros, by playing in that position for about 11 years, I made sure that fans remember ‘Kim Sang-su is a shortstop.’ There are still fans now who remember me as a shortstop. The position has special meaning to me."
Special meaning or not, when Lee — another of the famous four — returned to the KBO in 2019 after 10 years playing in the U.S. minor leagues, Kim was moved to second baseman.
But things seem to have worked out just fine for Kim at second base, and his strength at-bat has continued to improve.
In 2019, Kim finished with a .271 batting average with 21 stolen bases and 127 hits. This year, he finally reached a batting average above .300 for the first time in his career, as he finished with a .304 batting average with 10 stolen bases and 123 hits.
At 30, Kim seems too young for the “one-club man” title, but he has already been playing for the Lions for 12 years.
“It still amazes me when I look back at my 12 years with Samsung,” Kim says. “Not only did I not think that I would come this far, but when I look back, I’m also thankful that I was able to play for this long and to those people who helped me come this far.”
Highs and lows
Looking at the numbers, you could assume that Kim’s career has been pretty consistent each season, but that’s not entirely the case.
Like most professional athletes, he's also been through a period where things weren't going his way.
“From 2016, after we moved to Daegu Samsung Lions Park, I had a little slump,” Kim says. “I don't know if it was due to the injury, but I think I had a slump in my career in general. It was the very first time for me to experience a slump, so I think it was a little difficult. But what changed me was the FA contract.”
In fact, Kim says that his injury in 2016 season is something that he wants to forget and wishes never happened.
“From 100 hits, a lot of things have gone unexpectedly wrong,” Kim says. “From that moment, I started to get minor injuries. If I could, I want to forget that.”
Kim has had a lot of unforgettable experiences in his career, and has the championship titles to prove it, but his proudest moment actually came just a few months ago. In October this year, Kim hit a grand slam during a game against the Lotte Giants, the first of his career.
“I think it had a bigger meaning because it was the winner,” Kim says. “I hit it, and I felt thrilled. As soon as I hit it, it was like ‘oh, ohhh.’”
This wasn't only a season of high points, however. With stadiums mostly empty due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kim, like every other player in the KBO, has struggled to adapt to the new atmosphere.
“It was disappointing,” Kim says. “I never thought of an empty stadium. So it really wasn’t fun. Although I reached a career high in terms of statistics, I would have liked to share that with the fans."
It's a family affair
Kim may be a famous baseball player, but he's not the only member of the family with fans. Kim’s younger brother, who performs under the name Woody, is a well-known indie singer-songwriter. Woody is a regular at Lions games, at least before the pandemic, and is often spotted turning up to cheer his brother.
Woody may be a famous singer now, but Kim remembers a very different personality growing up.
“When he was little, he was really shy and he was always next to my mom,” Kim says. “To be honest, I never thought he’d be singing in front of a lot of people. I don’t know where he got that from, but watching him now, I’m amazed and very proud.”
Since they were little, it was clear that the brothers were going to take different paths as Woody didn’t show any interest in athletics.
“He didn’t play sports at all,” Kim says. “My family followed me a lot because I played sports. So since I was little, my brother sacrificed a lot for me. I’m very grateful for that.”
But while Woody chases record sales and sold-out stadiums, Kim is quite happy right where he is. His goal in life is to become the longest-running player in Samsung Lions history.
“Of course, I can only do that by playing well,” Kim says. “I want to blend in well with the younger players and rebuild a great team, like it used to be in the past.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]