Go Search Go Contents Go to bottom site map

(Yonhap Feature) KBO club's foreign players thrive with a little help from their friend

2017/08/23 08:43

Article View Option

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Aug. 23 (Yonhap) -- Since the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) started allowing clubs to import arms and bats in 1998, foreign players have accounted for large parts of their teams' success -- or failure.

After a series of changes to the system, teams are now allowed three foreign players each, and at least one must be a position player.

Almost invariably, those pitchers are front-line starters who are expected to pitch deep into games every start. And the position player is usually a slugger who can provide power in the middle of the lineup. In more than a few cases, these players also offer stellar defense and impressive speed on base paths.

Clubs invest huge sums of money into signing former major league talent, at times plucking them right off a big league postseason roster from the previous season.

Given the importance of these players and the amount of time and money spent on scouting and signing them, it's curious at best and mind-boggling at worst that teams aren't doing more to help these players off the field -- making sure that they get acclimated to the new culture and country, and that they have few distractions.

And this is what ultimately led Patrick Bourgo to start working for the KBO's NC Dinos. He is listed as a manager on the Dinos' global scouting and baseball analytics team, and what Bourgo does reaches far beyond number crunching. In a way, he's a utility infielder away from the field, serving as a Mr. Do-It-All for the Dinos' three American players: Eric Hacker, Jeff Manship and Xavier Scruggs.

In this file photo provided by the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization, Patrick Bourgo (second from L), a club official helping the team's foreign players, poses for a picture alongside pitcher Eric Hacker (L), pitcher Jeff Manship (second from R) and infielder Xavier Scruggs. (Yonhap) In this file photo provided by the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization, Patrick Bourgo (second from L), a club official helping the team's foreign players, poses for a picture alongside pitcher Eric Hacker (L), pitcher Jeff Manship (second from R) and infielder Xavier Scruggs. (Yonhap)

While clubs all employ English-language interpreters for their foreign players, no other team aside from the Dinos has an employee who works with foreign players and their families on and off the field the way Bourgo does.

Bourgo, a 39-year-old from Los Angeles, has been living in South Korea since 2004. He is also a co-founder of the Korean chapter for the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). A lifelong baseball fan and a former high school player, Bourgo had been doing research on Korean baseball history and wanted to find more about foreign players in the KBO, when he recognized one trend.

"One of the things I noticed is that (foreign) players didn't last a very long time," Bourgo said. "Only a handful played more than four, five years. I started to get interested in why that was the case."

   When he previously worked with the Korea Management Association (KMA), which provides consulting for corporate clients, Bourgo created a cross-cultural training course for non-Korean office workers. And Bourgo felt foreign players in the KBO could use a similar type of training.

Hoping to find out what type of training -- if at all -- foreign players had received when they arrived in South Korea, Bourgo reached out to some 15 to 20 active and former KBO players. He then came up with a proposal for KBO clubs and was eventually hired by the Dinos prior to the 2016 season.

Bourgo said he is "on call 24/7," and he is "almost like a personal assistant" for Hacker, Manship and Scruggs. Hacker is in his fifth season, while Manship and Scruggs are playing in the KBO for the first time.

In this file photo taken on April 13, 2017, Jeff Manship of the NC Dinos throws a pitch against the LG Twins in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken on April 13, 2017, Jeff Manship of the NC Dinos throws a pitch against the LG Twins in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. (Yonhap)

For Bourgo, it could be trying to find the proper doctor or restaurants for the players and their families, or whatever little things that he's asked to do. Bourgo, who put together a manual of sorts for Manship and Scruggs before their first KBO season in 2017, said he just wants to help the players "adapt and adjust as quickly as possible."

   "I do as much as I can to create situations for foreign players so that they can focus their attention on playing to the best of their abilities, and they don't have to worry about off-field distractions," Bourgo said.

The Dinos are based in Changwon, some 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul in South Gyeongsang Province. Bourgo said he travels to Changwon for about two home series a month. And he attends most of the Dinos' road games in Seoul and two neighboring cities, Incheon and Suwon.

In particular, he tries to see every start by Hacker and Manship in person "because I like to see their body language when they're pitching."

   "For me to understand what's going on, it's better if I can observe their demeanor," he said. "Certain body language in the U.S. could mean something different and could be misinterpreted over here. It's important that the players are aware of that. There have been situations (in Korean baseball) where foreign players have done something on the field that ended up causing problems, and it wasn't necessarily their intention."

   Bourgo is uniquely suited for the job he does. He had a close Korean friend in college, and he's married to a Korean woman. Bourgo readily admitted he wouldn't have had the job if he didn't have the knowledge and understanding of the Korean culture.

He gained that knowledge by making mistakes, and Bourgo hopes he can keep his foreign players from making the same errors that he did in trying to learn the culture.

Bourgo may not be willing to take the credit, but the three American players say his presence has been of immense help.

"Moving into another culture across the world can be a scary thing, and Patrick has certainly made me much more comfortable," said Manship, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians in last year's World Series. "I can focus much more on baseball and performing on the field due to being comfortable away from the field."

   Manship, who set a record in July by winning his first eight KBO decisions, said Bourgo being an American with a Korean spouse makes him a great fit for his position.

"I think that American players feel a sense of ease with someone who has already lived in the culture for so many years," Manship added. "His wife is Korean so that adds even more to it because he is fully integrated into the country and culture. I think he understands the American players' mindsets."

   The 2017 season has been much different for Bourgo than last year on many levels. He only joined the club after spring training last year, and all three foreign players -- Hacker, Eric Thames and Zach Stewart -- had already been in the KBO for a few years.

In this file photo taken on Aug. 1, 2017, Xavier Scruggs of the NC Dinos gets a hit against the Hanwha Eagles in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken on Aug. 1, 2017, Xavier Scruggs of the NC Dinos gets a hit against the Hanwha Eagles in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. (Yonhap)

This year, Bourgo was with the club in spring training and got to build a quick rapport with two fresh faces: Manship and Scruggs. Bourgo said he enjoyed their company because "their attitude and character made my job a lot easier."

   Scruggs said having Bourgo from Day 1 in spring training in the U.S. was of immense help because he and Manship, the pair of first-timers, were able to learn a lot about the Korean culture before they even arrived here.

Scruggs said Bourgo put together a manual for the foreign players, covering basic things about culture, food and life in South Korea in general. Though they might only have been little things, they were still "huge" in Scruggs' mind.

"A lot of credit goes to Patrick," Scruggs said. "I've talked to a lot of (other foreign players in the KBO) and obviously, they wish they had somebody like Patrick. When we need help finding certain things and when we have questions, Patrick is someone we can go to."

   Scruggs said Bourgo came through for him when his parents were visiting South Korea earlier in the season, as he helped the Scruggs family get from the airport to a game in Seoul and then down to Changwon for a home game the following day.

Bourgo was also by Scruggs' side when the player was going through his rehab from an oblique injury earlier in the summer.

"He was able to talk to the trainers and the team and make sure everything was going well step by step," Scruggs said. "Injuries are pretty tough to have to talk about, translation wise, because everybody feels something different. But he was able to really get my point across to the team, and I was able to move smoothly in my rehab process."

   And Scruggs hasn't missed a beat since returning from the injury. Despite missing a month of action, Scruggs still led the Dinos with 25 home runs and 78 RBIs in 89 games through Tuesday's action.

In this file photo taken on July 2, 2017, Eric Hacker of the NC Dinos delivers a pitch against the Lotte Giants in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Sajik Stadium in Busan. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken on July 2, 2017, Eric Hacker of the NC Dinos delivers a pitch against the Lotte Giants in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Sajik Stadium in Busan. (Yonhap)

Hacker is in a different position than Manship and Scruggs, because this is already his fifth KBO season. And while he has relied on Bourgo himself, Hacker has also teamed up with Bourgo to help the two new arrivals.

He called it "creating the supporting cast of comfort," as he and Bourgo have tried to get Scruggs and Manship to understand the local culture on and off the field.

"There are a lot of things that happen that are culture differences," Hacker said. "A lot of guys can be frustrated with that. Patrick helps us understand things that might be frustrating and helps us get an open mind about those things."

   Because of the language barrier, Hacker said it's difficult for foreign players like himself to build relationships with Korean teammates. And this is where Bourgo comes in "to bridge that gap." And because Hacker is more accustomed to playing and living in South Korea than Scruggs or Manship, he relies on Bourgo more for friendship than anything else.

"It's just nice to be able to send a quick text or quick phone call," Hacker said. "It's helpful to have somebody that can help make you feel a little more comfortable when needed. He and I have developed a pretty good relationship over the last couple of years."

   Whether it's being an extra set of ears to talk to or being the shoulder to lean on during a grueling rehab, trust has been and will always be crucial, Bourgo said.

"I need foreign players to trust me and the team to trust me, for me to do my job effectively and properly," he said. "Having the team trust me to do the right thing to help the team and having the foreign players understand that I am working for them, that's what makes (my job) possible."

   jeeho@yna.co.kr

(END)

angloinfo.com