Halifax’s Mr. Baseball

A Haligonian’s Experiences of Playing Baseball in Korea:Excerpts from the blog of Steve Betts

Edited by Bill McLean
“Since Thursday night about a month and a half ago, I have been the first foreigner in Jeju history to play baseball. That means I have been the first to do many things. I am first to play on that field, first to get a hit, first to get an out, first to hit a homerun, a triple blah blah blah. I had to mention those last two hits. Actually I have two HR and two triples but whatever…I am liking the idea of all that too as it sure is something I can tell my friends and kids about when I get older.The Jeju Dragons is a team of real nice guys that have been operating for ten years this summer. They are very similar to our rec hockey teams back home as they have leaders and guys that do most of the work and keep the things running. They are relatively the same age (mid 30’s so I fit in) and are typical Koreans. What that means is they work and drink and play hard. I fit right in. The team is a serious club. Uniforms are tailored and you have to have a uniform to play. I am having problems right now as I don’t have cleats but cross trainers and they won’t let me play without an argument. The field is astro turf and my shoes are fine for it but it’s the way they do things here and I can’t argue with it. There are lot of things I don’t agree with but my job isn’t to argue about tradition it’s to hit bombs and catch balls. I am doing that so far and loving it.”
“…….The leagues they play are tiered. Meaning that they have short seasons and then you are placed in a higher or lower league according to your performance. It’s much the same as football in the U.K.. There is much to tell about the differences in the game, the team atmosphere and the culture. I have had nothing but good experiences other than the shoe issue but it’s early and Koreans are good at changing things in a hurry. I sound negative but it’s more cautious than anything.”

“……..One game I actually had an umpire apologize several times for calling a bad strike. I was put in a hole when he called two strikes that were obviously low as even my team was yelling from the bench. They don’t yell at umpires here. Umpires are given respect and there is no arguing whatsoever with an umpire. Before each at bat or at least on the first at bat for each batter, the batter bows to the catcher and the umpire without his helmet on. Back to the umpires apologizing. He calls these strikes and he knew they were very low so when I was running back onto the field he yells at me real loud so everyone could hear him and he calls me over. He apologizes vehemently about calling such bad strikes on me. He apologized a lot and he made sure everyone knew he was apologizing to me. An inning later I am on second and he apologizes again like he stole my soul. I mean I have heard of umps apologizing but he went out his way to make sure I wasn’t mad at him or was having a bad time because of him. That is what most Koreans are like. If they know they are upsetting you they will correct it as much as they can. I am not sure if that goes for Koreans to Koreans but as a foreigner, it happens.”

“……The first few times at the field were not good experiences. I was not allowed to play the first time I was suppose to as I didn’t have cleats nor a uniform. Both items are required to play in this league. I have cross trainers but they are no good enough for some reason. Its astro turf for crying out loud! As far as a uni goes, for this game I was able to play without one but when they saw my shoes they wouldn’t let me play. So I sat my first day of ball. Not a good feeling.”
“…….Game two as better because I started it off with a bang. I was playing another exhibition game and it was with some players from other teams and our Dragon team. It was more or less a ‘live’ game. I was hitting third ( I think) and was expected to hit something hard or else the giant white guy wasn’t doing his job. The coach comes to me before every at bat, looks at me with a serious look and says “Steben, homerun” and points at me like a probation officer would to his parolee. I just nod and think to myself…wow! No pressure. Hit a homerun every time. No pressure. Yea right.”
“…….I was playing first again and it was a hot day at the field and at first. The players we have are very high and low skilled and so getting a throw at first can be an adventure to say the least. I am tall and semi-mobile so getting balls is easy enough but when it’s coming off turf it’s a bit of a trick. I got the hang of that soon enough but wasn’t expecting so many high throws, so many low throws and so many wild throws. I liked the action but we sure need some infield practice. I could see the heat wave coming off the field as the ball approached it was so hot out! Water was the drink of the day. I could see them laugh when I would catch something high that the normal first baseman cant and I know they are saying to one another “just throw it over there somewhere and he will catch it, he is such a big friggin monkey, he can catch anything”, then they point and laugh. I get it and like it because they know they can trust me to try for anything they can dish out.”

“…….This is a very serious league and team. They don’t play that much but when they do the seriousness of it all is evident in the mandatory uniforms, the five umpires on the field for games, the full scoreboard and not to mention playing at a 12,000 seat stadium. It is serious!
I had a great day at the plate but the only hit that meant anything to them was the homerun. I hit a hanging curveball over the wall in right and I was greeted at home with the boys beating me over the head with their hands and some high fives as well. I was now a teammate and a big slugger to boot. I think from my coach’s looks and finger wagging I am suppose to do that every time at the plate.”
“…..This night was full of new experiences. I had a good day with the baseball and getting to know these guys. There was lots of time spent with them so I had no choice but to get to know them somehow someway. I can’t speak Korean remember and on the other side of the coin there are two guys that speak very little English. I assume we speak as much of each other’s language about the same. I think I might know slightly more than one guy but a little less than the other. It’s a huge deal as little things can be hard to discuss. Think about that for a second and remember I spend at least three hours or more with these guys during a game. It’s hard.”
“…..After the game we were all going to a local restaurant which is owned by a friend of the team manager. It was close by and so easy to get to from the park. It was a hot day and a long one, so a few beers never hurt anyone right? Famous last words.”
“…….I was seated next to Kay, the one guy that can speak a little English. He is a great guy and very much a happy person. He is always smiling no matter the situation. He is a good pal for sure. When Kay and I got talking he tells me that I am very much a part of the team now and that the manager and coach are more than impressed with my skills. I said thanks and smiled and kept sipping my beer. As every minute passed I was being told by Kay that this player thought this and that player thought that and that they were happy to have me playing for them. I was told that other teams are jealous about me playing for the Dragons and that I will have to not go to another team if they approach me. I was shocked at all the attention but understood it as this is the highest form of baseball here and they never give up their dream of winning a championship. Back home hitting a homerun is expected out of me and not something to be hailed. I am not home though.”
“…….Kay proceeds to tell me more as the beer gets flowing. I was not permitted an empty glass and all the players around me were offering me beer and Soju (the local nasty-high-alcohol-content-face-squincher-eye-closer liquor) not even ten minutes into the night. Even the league president was there but in a Dragons capacity and he told Kay to tell me that he was happy to have myself and Conrad (the other foreigner) in the league. I can only account for what they said to me but I am sure they are happy to have Con too as he is a good ball player and adds some skill to the weak outfield. When the food came I was not to get my own food as the others around me put meat on my plate and made sure my side dishes were full at all times. I was being treated like a King! I wasn’t sure why so I got going on the questions and this is what I learned.”
“…..I am younger than some but for the most part I am older than my teammates. As a Korean custom, older people are held in high regard due to their age. I am 37 over here (it’s a long story) even though I am 35 in the Western World and so that makes me older than most teammates. Add the fact I am a good ball player (which does count as something) and I don’t have to do a thing for the whole night. I get beers poured for me, I get the best meat of the heat plate, I get Soju poured for me and really the only thing I need to do on my own is go to the bathroom. I was sitting quietly when ‘Manager’ came to me and introduced me to the Rookie. He is a 26 year old kid who isn’t that great a ball player but wants to be a part of the team no matter what. He won’t play for a year at least before even given the chance to play and basically is everyone’s ‘gopher’ while he is around. I found this out this night as Manager told him to sit beside and told me that if I needed anything he would be there to get it for me. I had a pool-boy! The thing about being older is you are to take your higher rank and use it to give proper advice and experiences to your younger mates……..You are not expected to treat them nice and basically you can treat them as you see fit and no one can say much as this is their culture. It isn’t abused a lot but it can be an issue in some circles. Now, as a Westerner I am not use to his type of attitude and I was being too nice to the Rookie and Manager was getting mad at me. He asked me if I liked him already and I said yes but he would give me a dirty look. I wasn’t sure why he was being that way so I asked and Kay told me why. I wasn’t surprised with the answer but nonetheless I was doing what I thought was right. I said to Manager that no matter his status and my status he is a teammate and we stick together and so I am obligated to treat him with respect. He didn’t agree with that as he is Korean but we at least agreed to disagree. Don’t worry Manager and I are good friends now and we don’t see eye to eye on some things but we are fine.”

“…..I was told there was a game on a Sunday but got a call Saturday morning at 8 AM telling me we played that afternoon versus a team from Seoul……..I get to the field and it was a very busy. There were photographers and more people in the stands than a regular day. The other team was already hitting and taking infield and looked good. I found out later that some of them played pro and were a farm team of sorts for the Korean pro league. I was right about them probably being better than what we see here in Jeju and I was happy to see it. The stands had lots of kids in them and more semi-sober middle aged men then normal watching both teams get ready.”

“……I was super tired but ready to roll and see what we were up against. In the end I had a good day at the plate and had a good day in the field. I was 2-3 in the game versus some good pitching. It was a young kid with a great Asian wind up and a great off speed pitch. I saw more than one of our players twist themselves into the ground. They were hitting our pitching so it was no surprise we took a whooping. They were beating our pitcher around like a rented mule. They had a four hitter that was my size and was hitting the hell out of the ball. There was a light mood and I was smiling head to toe and admiring this other team. I was actually playing baseball on a paradise island versus a team from Seoul! I almost forgot I was in the game a few times and found myself watching and not knowing what the count was and how many outs there were.”
“…..Baseball wise, the fun part was the other team. They had some sweet fielding middle infielders and some great hitters. Speed wise Koreans are not normally fast and this was true of this team. They basically made their way around the bases with singles and the odd double but nonetheless made their way. I don’t think they stole a base the whole day but seeing their hitting was good enough for me.”
“……..The day was a good one for sure. I was amazed at a few things. I saw some great baseball finally. I had witnessed some real clown shows in the games we have played. The errors are relentless sometimes and make for long games. This day, I saw some great baseball and it made me think of what a great experience it was. I was seeing something that I never ever dreamt I would see. I can look at it and say I am privileged and lucky to see this as it’s truly something of a surreal event for me. The two teams smiling and playing a game we all love to play made me forget I was in Korea. Made me forget I didn’t know how to say “good play” or “good hit”. We didn’t win the game but the game of baseball brought me a little closer to my teammates and more importantly Koreans. I saw no differences between skin, language and any other thing you can think that was and is different on every single day I play.”

“…….The second game was a bit different in a few ways. First of all, I didn’t know there was a second game. I was finishing the second game up, packing my glove my hat and cleats when Robert (named after my father by me) comes to me and says “Seteben, you ok, play again? More game”. I thought &^%$ I am tired and I didn’t want to go through another beating like they put on my team. This game was different for a second thing; it was an All-Star game! They asked myself and players from all sorts of teams to play in this game. I thought well that would be cool as the skill level on our team would be higher and maybe we would give them a run-for-their-money. The third thing that was different and was very exciting for the Koreans was that it was under the lights. They don’t play under the lights in Jeju and there were guys who had never ever saw or played a game under the lights. So this was by all accounts, a big deal game. So I said yes. Hangover and all.”

“……..I am glad I played. The guys we had on our team were the best and I knew it. I had seen these players on other teams and thought they were good. They chose the best but also they picked some senior players so as to give them a chance to play in this special game. Seniority goes a long way as you have read in previous blogs so this was no different. We had a solid 8 out of 9 guys on the field. The game went pretty much the way it was suppose to which was inning after inning neither team really pulled away. I was doing just fine at the plate and in the field so I was not concerned with that part of the game. I was concerned with the ‘not-so-good’ player coming into the game at second base. Sure enough, they hit about 4 balls in one inning by him and through him to take a big lead. It was not a big deal as it was a fun game but disappointing to most of us as we were giving them a good game. The score ended up being a bit lopsided but still a good game.”
“……I was impressed with the way both teams handled this situation. I knew this guy was bad, the team knew this guy was bad, he knew he was bad but they played him anyway. He got balls hit at him and he didn’t want to have to field a single one. He laughed his way through it and so did the rest of us. I started to get slightly upset but then realized that no one around me was getting mad. Normally even in a ‘fun’ game in North America people get upset over these types of things. Not this group. Two teams were laughing about it and it was genuine. The second baseman was not mad or angry with his play so I calmed down and realized how wrong I was in reacting the way I started to react. Another lesson learned that it is just a game and not a life changing event that will have a major affect on life…it’s baseball.”
“….In the end the two games I played were vastly different. The first game was an obvious attempt by an inferior team to try and score some runs. The second game was Jeju proving we had some good ball players (plus one whitey) who could stand up against the Seoul teams and give them a good game. This was a big deal for the league, the Island and the players. They were happy with the second result and that was very much discussed after the game. I was thanked for my play and congratulated by the other team for my hitting. Two players took the time to try and explain I was a concern for their team in both games. I was too big and strong for their pitching but also they found out I could hit strange pitches. I told them I could hit pitches like that because I was too anxious to hit and didn’t like to walk, they had a good laugh over that. Both teams left the park together and went to a big restaurant and finished the weekend with lots of soju and whisky and beer. I somehow shook some hands, had some chats and snuck away to my motorbike and drove home.”
“…..The playoff run was up next. The tourney was set and our team had about 2 practices to get ready. I went to coach and told him something that was not really accepted at first. I told him that there is a lot of pressure on the team to perform. We were missing some great players in the previous games but I was told they would be back for the playoffs. I told Coach to ease up a little on the players and let them relax and have fun. Koreans put a lot of pressure on one another and even more on themselves to perform. This was evident in everyday life with Koreans and that did not change for sports.
So we were up against some tough teams in the beginning rounds of our playoffs. Our losing those 3 or 4 games put us at the bottom of the teams and therefore had to play some good teams. Coach wanted to put lots of pressure on the players but to my amazement he called the team together and told them what I had told him a week ago. He told them to have fun, stay focused and relax. We were good but only when we were playing together and having fun! I was amazed as the Coach is the man on a team. What he says goes and to have him use my thoughts before the playoffs was a big deal for him and me. I smiled at him and patted him on the back without saying a word. Turns out the team listened to him and we made that our theme for the next 4 games. We rolled over the competition and even had the players who played so bad before, play real well and get some clutch hits. That was a great run into the finals which was against the best team bar non in this set of playoff games.”
“…The Coach was brave in giving me credit for the `fun` theme. I am not taking any credit for that in my mind. I think what he did by saying my name in the team huddle was a big deal for him, a real manager’s move. He was humbled by it and I knew it. His players knew it. He didn’t give them a big speech; he didn’t give them a heart to heart. He smiled, said that I thought we needed to have fun and play hard and stay focused. He said we were good and we knew it and had to act like it. He made the team follow him and he made them believe. He just needed someone to remind him who we were and who he was. I think it worked.”
Steve Betts is a regular guest on Haligonia Sports episodes and colour commentator for Dalhousie Tigers hockey on ssncanada.ca.

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