(News Focus) Military exemption again issue at heart for Asiad baseball squad
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- For South Korean male athletes, the prospect of gaining exemption from their mandatory military service through their athletic achievements can be a double-edged sword.
An Asian Games gold medal or an Olympic medal of any color will do the trick. Some have thrived in such circumstances, motivated by the chance to avoid disruption to their careers. Others have crumbled under pressure, unable to reach deep into their reservoir of strength to get them over the hump.
When South Korea on Monday announced its 24-man baseball roster for the Asian Games, from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4 in the western city of Incheon, the team included 13 players who aren't already exempt.
The question begs: Will they be able to summon extra strength to lead South Korea to its second straight baseball gold? Or will the weight of having to win the gold in the nation's most popular sport before passionate home crowds prove too much for them to handle?
South Korea's recent history in international competitions suggests there's hardly a bigger carrot for the ball players than the military exemption. On the other hand, because the complexion of the domestic talent pool has changed greatly over the years, crowding the team with non-exempt players could backfire on South Korea.
In December, Ryu Joong-il, manager of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) champ Samsung Lions, was named the bench boss for the South Korean team at the 2014 Asian Games. From the onset, he declared he would select players based on merit and that their military status wouldn't come into play.
"I know that the military exemptions are on the line, but we do have to win the gold medal for that," Ryu said after being appointed the national team manager. "So I will select only the best players."
Yet Ryu may have done the exact opposite. Though he sidestepped the issue of the players' exemption status when announcing the team on Monday, Ryu appeared to have chosen certain players over others to give them a chance to win their exemptions. In the process, Ryu also left out some of the KBO's best players at some positions.
Ryu could afford to do so because he faced a much different task in team selection compared to managers of earlier Olympics or Asian Games.
Ahead of the 2008 Olympics, with most of the key players not exempt from the military service, South Korea couldn't afford not to take its very best players. The 24-man squad had 14 players who weren't already exempt, including Ryu Hyun-jin, starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Lee Dae-ho, first baseman for the SoftBank Hawks in Japan. If they hadn't been exempt from the conscription, it's unlikely the two would have been signed by overseas clubs.
The 2010 Asian Games team of 24 had 11 such players, including Major League Baseball (MLB) outfielder Choo Shin-soo, and a pair of prospective free agents who have drawn attention from big-league scouts, SK third baseman Choi Jeong and Nexen shortstop Kang Jung-ho.
For this year, most of the KBO's finest players have either received exemptions from one of the two events or have actually served in the armed forces. There was also no need to call up players from the majors or the Japanese league.
Against this backdrop, Ryu made some controversial choices that could haunt him in Incheon.
At second base, for instance, Ryu chose Oh Jae-won of the Doosan Bears over Seo Geon-chang of the Nexen Heroes. Among six infielders, Oh is the only natural second baseman, and Ryu explained that Oh was selected for his ability to play all infield positions, whereas Seo can only play second base.
Seo could still have been a useful bat to keep around: he leads the KBO in hits and runs scored, and is second in stolen bases and fifth in batting average, better offensive numbers across the board than Oh.
Seo has served his two years in the military, but Oh hasn't.
At third base, two non-exempt players, Hwang Jae-gyun of the Lotte Giants and Kim Min-sung of the Heroes, were selected ahead of the Lions' Park Sok-min, who has completed his military service.
Park has 22 homers so far in 2014, more than any other third baseman in the KBO, and eight more than Hwang and Kim combined. Park has also shown improvement with his defense at the hot corner.
Ryu noted that Park has had to deal with a nagging injury to his left middle finger and said he didn't think his own third baseman on the Lions would be healthy enough to play at the Asian Games. The finger problems, though, haven't prevented Park from batting .317 and playing each of the Lions' 84 games so far.
Ryu has set himself up for plenty of second-guessing if South Korea fails to win the gold medal. The players themselves, meanwhile, say having non-exempt players around will be beneficial.
"These non-exempt players will have a definite source of motivation," said Lotte catcher Kang Min-ho, who played at both the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Asiad. "Obviously, you don't join the national team just for the military exemption, but I am also being realistic. At the 2008 Olympics, the players who needed exemption were really driven to do well."
He also recalled that the military exemption issue also brought the team closer off the field, with veterans looking after younger teammates and even running errands for them, unusual in a sporting culture built heavily on hierarchy.
"Small things added up and we ended up taking the Olympic gold," Kang said. "I've been on the receiving end for so long, and now I want to help out younger players."
Third baseman Hwang, Kang's Lotte teammate, faced the prospect of having to put his career on hold for the military service.
He is having the best offensive season of his career with a .327 average. He turned 27 on the day of the team announcement and would have lost two years of his prime had he not been given a chance to win the Asian Games gold.
Hwang admitted he'd been such a nervous wreck in the days leading up to the announcement that he could barely keep food down. He still managed to hit a game-winning home run on Sunday.
"I am even more nervous now," Hwang told reporters Monday, hours after his selection. "This is not the end. It's only the beginning. I know I have to play well there."
South Korea has mostly enjoyed success in baseball when military exemptions were on the line, having won gold medals at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok when all 22 players hadn't been exempt, and also at the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Asian Games.
The one glaring hiccup came at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. South Korea had 13 non-exempt players on the 22-man roster but lost to Taiwan and Japan, which fielded a team of mostly amateurs, and settled for bronze. The turn of events has since been dubbed the "Debacle in Doha."