Globally minded Cubs mining Korea
Club goes all in to scout, acclimate foreign prospects
When Korean shortstop Hak-Ju Lee reports to the Cubs' Minor League camp this spring, he should have a better grasp of the English language, thanks to The Carpenters.
A 19-year-old infielder from Jeonju, South Korea, Lee turned to karaoke last year to complement his language lessons. His singing talents were showcased at a Class A Boise booster club event at the end of the 2009 season, and his rendition of "Superstar" can be seen in a YouTube video.
"They're here by themselves," said interpreter Min Sung of the Koreans in the Cubs' system. "They don't shop much. They go to dinner and sing karaoke. In the Midwest, the entertainment is going to Wal-Mart and Target."
"As long as they're learning English, I don't care what they do," Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita said.
The Cubs now scout around the world. Paul Weaver is director of international scouting, and the team added former Cubs pitcher Steve Wilson as the scouting coordinator for the Pacific Rim. Wilson signed Lee in March 2008. Outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha signed in September 2008, and pitcher Dae-Eun Rhee signed in August 2007. There are at least two more Korean players who could be in the Cubs' camp this spring and four from Taiwan.
"When you're out in the morning and addressing the players, you have to speak slowly because you're getting translated in four, five different languages," Fleita said. "I even kid the Australian guys we have to learn to speak Australian."
According to agent John Choi, baseball is more popular than soccer in Korea. Choi said "10 out of 10 Korean players want to play in the U.S. Major Leagues." And Major League teams are looking at the Koreans. There are at least 15 big league teams scouting in Korea.
"As an organization, we decided we were going to go global and we weren't going to go one foot in and one foot out," Fleita said. "We've jumped in with both feet. The organization has been very supportive to not only give us the financial support to sign players, but they've given us everything we need in terms of hiring scouts and providing these players with interpreters."
Rhee, who underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2008, has been studying English enough that he is able to communicate with his teammates. He does need a little help translating the coach's instructions, Sung said. Franklin Font, the Cubs' Minor League infield coordinator, said Lee has learned enough baseball words to figure things out. Font is Venezuelan. Maybe the Koreans should learn Spanish, not English?
"We try to teach them [Spanish]," Font said. "For them, it's easier to learn Spanish."
Some elements of the game are not easily translated.
Gary Van Tol, a coach at Boise, recalls a game last year when the Hawks had a five-run lead and runners at first and third. Lee bunted for a hit. Boise ended up scoring, and the opposing team took offense.
"Where [Lee] comes from, you try to score every inning," Van Tol said.
In the next half-inning, someone on the Boise team was thrown at and there was an altercation. Lee did not play the next day to avoid any further incidents. He took it personally.
"[Lee] called me that night right away," Sung said. "It's different baseball here than in Asia. He didn't know."
Rhee, who was 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 10 games for Class A Peoria in 2008 before needing surgery, said he expected a difficult time with the language. The right-hander, who continued his rehab in Mesa, Ariz., at the end of the regular season last October, has fit in just fine.
"I expected it to be really hard," Rhee said about coming to the U.S., "but it was easier than what I expected."
What Rhee, Ha and Lee also have discovered is that the U.S. game is different in terms of the amount of work.
"In Korea, if you play baseball, you don't go to class," Sung said in an interview in October. "You play baseball all day. The coaches force them to practice all day, from eight o'clock in the morning to nine o'clock at night. When they come over here, nobody forces them to do it. Here, it's from 7 [a.m.] until 2 or 3 [p.m.].
"They would tell me, 'It wasn't enough,'" Sung said about the Cubs' workouts. "That transition was tough."
Outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, entering his third season with the Cubs, also has hinted that he would prefer more time in the batting cage. In Japan, Fukudome had a reputation for hitting for hours. Last year, Fukudome would go to the cage early at Wrigley Field to try to get his swings in.
"I'm in the middle," Sung said. "I understand they want them to follow the American way to prevent injury. I'm trying to make a happy point between the American way and Korean way. It takes maybe one year, maybe two years [to adjust]. I'm trying to make a smooth transition for them."
The Korean baseball team has done well in international competition, so maybe their way is the right way?
"[When I played], I swung the bat until my hands would bleed," said Sung, who played in Korea as well. "Here it's more quality than quantity. In Korea, it's more quantity, more practice. I'm trying to make sure it's quality and quantity. It's not easy. Korean kids get hurt with a lot of practice. I'm trying to make sure they get enough rest."
It's part of the learning process for both the Cubs and the Korean players.
"We're trying to make sure everything we do, we do 100 percent," Fleita said. "The families who are entrusting us to take their children, we want them to have 100 percent confidence that we're taking care of their child as if they were my own."
How good are the Koreans? Baseball America ranked Lee as the Cubs' sixth-best prospect heading into 2010. Last season, he batted .330 at Boise with 25 stolen bases. Rhee, 20, was ranked fourth best by the publication prior to the 2009 season.
They'll be back this spring and hopefully will be feeling more comfortable with their teammates and surroundings.
"People think it would be hard for them, but they made a good adjustment," Sung said of the first year in the U.S. for Lee, Ha and Rhee. "It was kind of tough the first couple months because they missed home, they missed family, they missed the food. But they hang out with each other and hang out with the American players as well. They learned some Spanish. It wasn't too bad."
At road games, fans would wave signs in Korean. Some would tell the players about Korean restaurants so the Boise players knew they could find kimchi and not have to resort to McDonald's every day. Sung said the Cubs are ahead of other teams in terms of establishing an infrastructure to help make the transition easier.
"I'm really curious to see what happens in five years," Sung said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.