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(Yonhap Feature) In changing trend, former players heading to baseball's front office

2018/10/31 09:00

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By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) -- The front office for the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) clubs used to be the domain of corporate types who knew little about the game and who never played the game.

Most of these clubs have run major conglomerates since the beginning of the league in 1982, and these parent companies used to appoint their own business executives as the general manager (GM) of ball clubs and tasked them with the teams' administration and marketing.

Managers on the field had a strong say in player development and acquisitions, with the front office relying on those baseball-oriented minds for personnel decisions.

But the times, they are a changing.

In this file photo from Sept. 30, 2018, fans attend a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game between the home team Doosan Bears and the LG Twins at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo from Sept. 30, 2018, fans attend a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game between the home team Doosan Bears and the LG Twins at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Two years ago, only two of the 10 KBO clubs employed GMs who were former players. Today, seven GMs are ex-players who have taken their talent to the front office.

Min Kyung-sam of the SK Wyverns and Kim Tae-ryong of the Doosan Bears were the only two player-turned-GMs during the 2016 season. Min, who was named GM in 2009, stepped down in December 2016 and was succeeded by another former player, Yeom Kyung-yup. Kim has been in the post since 2011.

The success of those two clubs under the former players has other teams trying to follow suit, or at least has them wondering if having ex-players as GMs can make the difference. On Min's watch, the Wyverns reached every Korean Series -- the KBO's version of the World Series -- from 2007 to 2012 and won three titles. Just before leaving the club, Min brought Trey Hillman, former Kansas City Royals manager, on board as the Wyverns' first foreign skipper.

The Bears won back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016, and seem poised for another one this year after posting the best regular season record and earning a trip to their fourth consecutive Korean Series.

Both the Wyverns and the Bears built their championship teams through shrewd drafting and player development. The Bears in particular have enjoyed a seemingly endless string of homegrown stars who have stepped up to fill the void whenever veterans have left as free agents. Kim has been credited with laying the foundation of success by reforming and strengthening the team's affiliate in the second-tier Futures League.

Since the end of the 2018 regular season, two former players have become new GMs. For the LG Twins, one former pitcher, Cha Myung-seok, replaced another, Yang Sang-moon, as GM. The KT Wiz promoted their hitting coach Lee Soong-yong to the GM post.

All five postseason clubs this season -- the Doosan Bears, the SK Wyverns, the Hanwha Eagles, the Nexen Heroes and the Kia Tigers -- have ex-players as their GMs.

This file photo provided by the KT Wiz shows Lee Soong-yong, former hitting instructor for the Korea Baseball Organization club who was named the Wiz's general manager on Oct. 18, 2018. (Yonhap) This file photo provided by the KT Wiz shows Lee Soong-yong, former hitting instructor for the Korea Baseball Organization club who was named the Wiz's general manager on Oct. 18, 2018. (Yonhap)

The relatively new wave can be explained by the shift in focus on how KBO teams are being run.

In the early years following the KBO's inaugural season in 1982, baseball teams were seen as PR vehicles for big conglomerates to improve their public image. A typical GM was asked to toe the company line. Whatever happened on the field was left to skippers, who also exerted control over scouting and player development.

Over the years, running a KBO team has become far more complex. Starting in 1998, teams were allowed to sign foreign players. A year later, free agency was introduced.

And as the KBO has grown hugely popular, fans have come to demand more out of on-field performances. In the open market, MVP- or All-Star type players command huge sums of money in multiyear deals. Teams can't just be throwing their money around and hoping for the best.

KBO clubs are permitted to sign up to two foreign pitchers and one foreign hitter each, and they account for so much of the teams' overall production that teams have to be smart about putting their money into the right assets. Recognizable names may sell a few more tickets, but they haven't always panned out. Teams now scramble to find undervalued talent who could provide more bang for the buck than washed-up major league castoffs.

In addition to signing big-name free agents and former major leaguers, teams are also competing to unearth gems through amateur drafts. With 10 clubs, the KBO has never been bigger, but teams are trying to fill their roster spots from the talent pool that has essentially stayed the same size for years.

And those who've been on the field and inside the club house -- and thus have hands-on knowledge about the game -- are regarded as better fits to identify talent than corporate executives.

In this file photo from Sept. 10, 2018, Yeom Kyung-yup (C), general manager of the SK Wyverns, attends the annual rookie draft at the Korea Baseball Organization in Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo from Sept. 10, 2018, Yeom Kyung-yup (C), general manager of the SK Wyverns, attends the annual rookie draft at the Korea Baseball Organization in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Giving GMs more responsibilities in transactions, player development and other baseball operation matters has lifted pressure off managers on the bench. Skippers can now focus on X's and O's and massaging egos in the club house, without worrying about administrative tasks.

It's no coincidence that former players who cut their teeth in scouting and player development have ended up in GM seats. Nexen Heroes' Ko Hyung-wook had been their head of scouting before taking the GM job in 2017. Yeom Kyung-yup, GM for the SK Wyverns, became a scout for the Twins after ending his playing career and then got promoted to the club's head of baseball operations. He served as the Heroes' manager from 2013 to 2016 and then was named the Wyverns' GM in 2017. The Twins and the NC Dinos are other clubs who previously employed veteran scouts as their GMs.

Then there's Lee Soong-yong of the KT Wiz, who has taken a unique path from a hitting coach to a GM. His experience in player development came from the field, as he has split his five years of coaching in both the KBO and its minor league equivalent, the Futures League.

Lee will be overseeing an expansion franchise that has finished dead last in three of its first four seasons. He said he has identified problems with the Wiz during his coaching stint, and he's determined to fix them now that he's in a position to do so.

"I felt our biggest problem was with developing our minor league players," Lee said. "There was simply no system or structure in place. We have to improve our training facilities and strengthen our coaching staff. To have a strong KBO club, you need to have a solid base in the Futures League. That will ensure long-term success, and I want to be able to accomplish that."

   Lee has stepped into the GM role at a time when perceptions and expectations of player-turned-GMs have changed.

Back when corporate types occupied front office positions, there was always a clear line drawn between what the skipper does and what the GM does. Field managers expected to be left alone when it came to baseball-specific matters.

And even when former players started to make their way into the front office, the ideas that skippers would always handle the baseball side of things didn't change overnight.

Park Jong-hoon, who was named the Hanwha Eagles' GM in November 2016, had some well-documented power struggles with manager Kim Sung-keun, who was fired in May 2017.

In this file photo provided by the SK Wyverns on Oct. 27, 2016, Trey Hillman (L), named the Korea Baseball Organization club's new manager, shakes hands with then general manager Min Kyung-sam. (Yonhap) In this file photo provided by the SK Wyverns on Oct. 27, 2016, Trey Hillman (L), named the Korea Baseball Organization club's new manager, shakes hands with then general manager Min Kyung-sam. (Yonhap)

Kim, who once managed Park as a player, had been known as a control freak who had to have a final say on all player signings and transactions. But when the Eagles announced Park as their new GM, they stated that Kim would start focusing on "his responsibilities as the field manager," a thinly veiled message that Kim would be stripped of some of his power.

But when Park asked Kim to cut down on his extra batting practices after games -- the manager had been criticized for running his players into the ground -- Kim felt the GM was meddling too much with how the team was being run. But Park contended that he was only trying to do what he thought was best for the team's long-term future.

They also had differences on which minor league players could be called up during the season. There were times when Kim wanted some reinforcements in the bullpen, but Park refused to bring the players up because he didn't think they were ready to pitch in the KBO and felt they needed to be eased into the top competition.

The Park-Kim saga illustrates the type of difficulties that player-turned-GMs could face when working with other one-time jocks in the dugout. In an earlier interview, Park said "common sense" has to be used when trying to determine how much skippers and GMs should or should not do.

"GMs shouldn't interfere with what managers do in terms of strategies and actions on the field," Park said. "On the flip side, managers shouldn't get in the way of the front office's operations and personnel moves."

   One player-turned-GM said much like other jobs today, communication skills are at a premium for the GM position.

After all, those former players were hired partly because their teams felt their playing background would facilitate communication between the dugout and the front office.

"I just think the GM is the one who has to be patient, though both sides have to understand everyone's trying to do what's best for the team," the GM said, requesting anonymity because he didn't want to sound too patronizing to other executives.

"One of the advantages for GMs with playing experience is that we have that much more to talk about with the skippers," the official continued. "But just because you've been a player once, it doesn't mean you can talk about the game with the manager all the time. You may say something in passing and the manager will feel like you're meddling. You have to pick your spots and recognize when you can step in."

  

In this photo provided by the Nexen Heroes on Jan. 16, 2017, Ko Hyung-wook, named the Korea Baseball Organization's new general manager, poses next to the team's emblem at its home park, Gocheok Sky Dome, in Seoul. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by the Nexen Heroes on Jan. 16, 2017, Ko Hyung-wook, named the Korea Baseball Organization's new general manager, poses next to the team's emblem at its home park, Gocheok Sky Dome, in Seoul. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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