(Yonhap Feature) Korean-American ball player yearning for chance to compete in S. Korea
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) - Stephen Yoo, a catcher for a local independent baseball team, has a straightforward goal -- he just wants to keep playing baseball. Or more specifically, to keep playing baseball in South Korea, the land of his parents' birth.
"Playing in Korea is my No. 1 goal right now," said Yoo in an e-mail interview with Yonhap News Agency. He is training in Japan with the Goyang Wonders, a new independent club set to compete with other affiliated minor league teams in South Korea starting this year.
"If Major League Baseball or (Japan's) Nippon Professional Baseball is interested, any player would tell you that they would listen," Yoo said. "But that is a long way down the road."
The 28-year-old, native of Los Angeles, California, has already come a long way to join the Wonders, a club not affiliated with teams in the top flight Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). That means Yoo, if he does make the Wonders roster for the season, can't be called up by any big league team.
He is used to such plight, though. After playing at the University of Southern California and at Texas Christian University, Yoo began his professional career in 2005. But shoulder and knee injuries forced him into extended rehab and Yoo didn't get to play his first full pro season until 2008. That was also in a U.S. independent league, with no major league affiliation, and Yoo said he has been playing independent ball since 2008.
Stephen Yoo in his Orange County Flyers uniform during an independent Golden Baseball League season in 2010. (Courtesy of Stephen Yoo)
But it isn't just the affiliation issue. The KBO's rules guiding players of Korean descent with foreign passports have made it difficult for Yoo to enter the big league here.
Yoo, whose parents are Korean, is an American citizen by birth. The KBO categorizes such players as "foreign" players, and that means someone like Yoo can't enter the annual rookie draft and must instead hope to be signed as a free agent by KBO teams.
For players like Yoo, trying to beat other foreign-born players in the KBO free agent market -- ones with more extensive professional experience -- can be difficult, more so than competing against local high school or college graduates in the draft.
Also, KBO teams are only allowed to sign two foreign players each. They're much more likely to pursue players with major or minor league experience than journeymen types like Yoo.
The Korean Basketball League (KBL) recognizes foreign-born players of Korean lineage as "Koreans," and they can enter the draft with homegrown talent. Kim Hyo-beom, an All-Star shooting guard for the SK Knights who holds Canadian citizenship, was the second overall pick in the 2005 draft. He remains the highest-profile athlete in South Korea of such background.
Yoo said he had pushed the KBO to change the rule and follow the KBL's example. He didn't get his wish.
Yoo claimed the issue was not discussed at a general managers' meeting in December last year. Jeong Geum-jo, the head of baseball operations for the KBO, said the topic was on the agenda at the meeting, but that it was not passed.
Yoo said he was frustrated with the bureaucracy and lack of efficiency at the KBO, lamenting that the league office has to defer to general managers for policy decisions and that the process requires unanimity from team officials.
"The KBO is a confusing organization in general," he said. "What didn't make sense to me is why the league office doesn't have the power to make this type of decision. It makes it so easy for one team to just say no and have nothing solved."
Jeong said opponents of the rule change cited fairness to other players of similar situations. If the league makes an exception for Yoo, Jeong said, then it will be forced to do so for many more young players from overseas wanting to play here.
Ha Ji-heon, a public relations manager at the KBO, said the rule is in place also to protect homegrown players. His situation is similar to the argument that surfaced when Kim Hyo-beom entered the KBL -- that players trained in overseas youth programs will likely be picked high in drafts and take away jobs from local prospects.
Yoo played for a college in NCCA's Division I, a more competitive setting with a higher level of play than the South Korean college scene. He also has a few U.S. independent league games under his belt. While someone of Yoo's caliber may not stack up against former major leaguers in the free agent market, such a player would be worth a high selection in the draft, ahead of less polished high school graduates.
Yoo said the KBO and its teams should still look at the bigger picture and open the doors more.
"It is such a popular sport and having Korean-Americans or Korean-Japanese players is a huge benefit for the entire league," he said. "Every year, Korea loses their best young players to the MLB. Instead of trying to recover or figure out a way to replace them, they are complaining to the MLB about taking their best players."
Stephen Yoo (L) catches during a 2010 United League Baseball game for the San Angelo Colts. (Courtesy of Stephen Yoo)
The KBO official Jeong said team officials do understand situations for players like Yoo and haven't entirely closed their books on the rule change.
"We understand where they're coming from and since we have an expansion team (NC Dinos for 2013), we looked at this issue as something that could help us expand the talent pool," Jeong said. "It didn't go through this time, but we are keeping the possibility open for new discussions in the future."
Boardroom discussions aside, Yoo has been trying to kick-start his career. A former infielder and outfielder who switched to catcher in 2008, Yoo said playing baseball has been the easy part.
"I'm really enjoying the new experience and developing friendships with new guys and just playing baseball," said Yoo, who arrived here last June. "The only real tough part about this experience is the amount of practice time and some of the cultural stuff. There's very little down time and the player-coach relationship is very, very different out here. It's like being in high school or college all over again."
Inside the office of the Korea Baseball Organization. (Yonhap)
He said he started thinking about coming to Korea after the 2010 season and saw a lot of benefits of playing here.
"I always wanted to play overseas and learn a different culture and style of baseball," he said. "I knew Korean baseball was very popular and growing rapidly. I wanted to be a part of the growth. Those types of opportunities don't come very often.
"I had a lot of ex-teammates and opponents that played in Korea and told me about their experiences," he continued. "So I figured being able to speak both languages, I can definitely be a positive influence in the league and on any team."
For now, Yoo will have to wait for his chance. He said his "ultimate goal" is to "keep playing and compete at the highest level possible," and that also includes the KBO.
"If the KBO allows me to play, I wouldn't mind at all this being the last stop," he said. "I would be honored to play in the KBO."