Struggling Eagles wrestle with unrest

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Struggling Eagles wrestle with unrest

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Hanwha Eagles players bow deeply to fans at home after a crushing 2-17 defeat to Doosan Bears on Apr. 14. The Eagles early lack of success and bad record is putting pressure on manager Kim Sung-kun. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

The Hanwha Eagles are facing major turmoil as the team is again stuck in a downward spiral and already seems destined to repeat the dismal failures of previous years.

Faced with dissatisfaction and resignations in the coaching staff and external criticism of the team’s management, signs of frustration are evident at Hanwha Life Insurance Eagles Park in Daejeon.

After the Eagles lost its home game against Seoul’s LG Twins on Sunday by 4-6, the lights at the stadium stayed on late into the night as the team went through postgame practice once again.

The after-game session reflects the disappointment manager Kim Sung-kun is attempting to overcome. The Daejeon based team lost all five games it played last week to set their league record at two wins and 11 losses and puts the team on track to re-live the nightmare of past seasons from 2011 to 2014 when the team finished at the bottom of the league standings for four consecutive seasons.

One of the internal struggles the Eagles are facing is the dissatisfaction among the coaching staff. Eagles’ Japanese pitching coach Seiji Kobayashi resigned from his post on Friday after he was relegated to the Eagles’ minor team on April 13. Kim said he was moved “because the pitchers conceded too many base on balls.” Kobayashi denied the claims and decided to leave the team.

Kobayashi is a veteran coach from Japan who helped Chunichi Dragons of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPO) win the Central League four times while coaching the Dragons’ pitching lineup for seven years from 2005.

He joined the Eagles last November in the anticipation that his expertise would offer insights to improve the team’s performance on the mound. However, he quit without any results to speak of in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).

Kobayashi’s departure is familiar. Last year, Japanese pitching coach Takashi Nishimoto also left the team after a year.

Although Kim relies heavily on Japanese coaching staff, they appear to be turning their backs on his stringent management style, especially for the pitchers.

Kim’s managerial philosophy is simple; it’s the manager’s way or the highway. Even details such as position assignments, small details that coaches would decide in other teams, are entirely based on Kim’s decision in the Eagles. Pitchers are also often forced to throw in successive games. From the perspective of coaching staff from Japan, where lineup amongst pitchers is strictly divided, this is unheard of and has caused clashes between Kim and Japanese staff.

Kim’s harsh management style seemed to work when he was with the SK Wyverns from 2007 to 2011. When starting pitchers performed poorly Kim threw in multiple relievers, forcing the relief pitchers to throw in three to four successive games. But his strategy isn’t practical this year as the pitching roster for the Eagles seriously depleted due to injuries among key pitchers such as Esmil Rogers and Sim Su-chang.

Kim faced criticism on April 14 when reliever Song Chang-sik came out of the dugout in the first inning and stayed on the mound for four and 2/3 innings while giving up 12 runs. Song threw 90 pitches and had to bear giving out four home runs. From the fans’ perspective, it was as if Kim was punishing Song for his poor performance.

The Eagles are known for running their pitchers mercilessly. The team’s pitchers are known for throwing more pitches on average than their counterparts in other teams. Perhaps because of this, the Eagles pitchers already seem exhausted. Even the Eagles coaching staff are disgruntled about this. A coach who worked for the Eagles commented, “Pitchers are always anxious because they simply don’t know when they will have to go in to the field. Their roles are also often ambiguous.

“Even outsiders can see that the Eagles players are unmotivated. Kim’s leadership simply cannot exert any influence over the players,” the staffer added.

The future for the Eagles seems even more grim. They are spending more than 10.2 billion won ($8.99 million) this year for the domestic players, the most among the 10 KBO teams. The team also suffered losses as it had to give away some of its younger talent in order to bring in the expensive free agents such as left-handed pitcher Jung Woo-ram. Rising prospects such as Choi Yeong-hwan left the Eagles after being relegated from the team, partly because of the management style and lack of opportunity. Choi currently plays for the Lotte Giants.

The Eagles also spent the most money among the KBO teams on foreign players by investing 4.2 billion won.

While it is still early in the season and the Eagles have time to turn things around, fans are wondering if the 74-year-old veteran manager can bring the season this year to a positive conclusion.

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]

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