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Transition to majors difficult for Korean players

St. Louis Cardinal reliever Seung Hwan pitches during

St. Louis Cardinal reliever Seung Hwan pitches during spring training game against the Miami Marlins on March 5, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. Credit: Getty Images / Rob Foldy

JUPITER, Fla.

The “Stone Buddha” wasn’t always unbreakable.

Before his collegiate career even began, the Cardinals’ Seung Hwan Oh needed Tommy John surgery. In the U.S., the ligament-replacement procedure seems to happen with the regularity of a flu shot. But as a 21-year-old, in South Korea, in 2001? Not so common, and Oh remembered being one of the first to use a local orthopedist, rather than traveling to the States, to get his elbow fixed.

“Back in those days, it wasn’t the most state-of-the-art facility to do my rehab, either,” Oh said Friday through his interpreter, Eugene Koo. “So that was kind of challenging. It took much longer. But it also gave me time to think and be prepared mentally for the situations that followed. In that sense, it helped me build up my career.”

Oh is the perfect example of what an elite closer needs, even if he’ll be in more of a set-up role for the Cardinals. The ability to shake off those moments of adversity, and be resilient enough to bounce back even stronger. Oh earned the nickname “Stone Buddha” for his unflappable demeanor on the mound, and that laser-like focus helped him accumulate 357 saves over 11 seasons, split between the two biggest Asian leagues, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).

He’ll have to rely on it again here in the States, because the transition for Korean players — even those with established, successful careers overseas — has proven to be difficult. Not only is there a significant upgrade in talent, but immersing themselves in a new baseball environment, along with the cultural/language challenges, continue to be obstacles with which many of their clubhouse neighbors don’t have to handle.

Major League Baseball took the overdue step of mandating Spanish-speaking interpreters for every team this season, but Hispanic players usually have plenty of teammates to converse with if they’re still working to become more adept at English. For Asian players, particularly rookies, they tend to feel more isolated, and their interpreters also end up being their closest friends because they lean on them so heavily.

In Oh’s case, there’s a sense of starting over, at age 33, despite being the most celebrated closer Korea has produced. Oh helped South Korea win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — allowing him to be excused from the country’s mandated two-year military service — and essentially was the Mariano Rivera of the KBO, twice earning the Korean Series MVP.

When Oh jumped to the NPB in 2014, receiving the most lucrative contract (two years, $7.9 million) for a Korean player at that time from a Japanese team — the Hanshin Tigers — he excelled in their advancing to the Japan Series. He had 39 saves during the regular season, breaking the record for a foreign pitcher in his first year. Over two seasons, Oh had 80 saves with a 2.25 ERA and 9.73 SO/9. Despite that immediate success, however, switching leagues — and countries — as Oh did is nowhere near as seamless as he made it appear.

At the time of his signing with Hanshin, the Korean newspaper Chosun reported that the Tigers’ manager told his players they should learn some Korean greetings and basic phrases so they could better communicate with Oh. The manager also offered to make Korean-language classes available. Even with all that, a foreign player still can feel like an outsider in these unfamiliar environments, and Oh believes his NPB experience definitely is helping him adjust to a whole new set of circumstances in the United States with the Cardinals.

“That’s absolutely true,” Oh said. “It’s not like it’s easier here or easier there. There’s no comparison about that, really. And I can’t think too much about that. I just have to think about facing another hitter. I’m learning here, and everyone has to do it. I was always ready after being through that process in Japan, and I think I’m doing fine here. I’m not feeling anything difficult at this point.”

Oh is fortunate in that regard. A year ago, Jung Ho Kang couldn’t say the same as he struggled during spring training under the microscope with the Pirates. Kang arrived in the United States with plenty of hype, a rare power-hitting shortstop from the KBO’s Nexen Heroes, and a relatively large four-year, $11-million contract (not including the $5 million posting fee).

The Korean media chronicled his every move as Kang was trying to become the first position player to go from the KBO straight to the majors, but his sluggish Grapefruit League start (3-for-27, 11 Ks) became frustrating for both him and the Pirates, who preached patience. At one point, Kang even said he would no longer speak to the media until Opening Day — hoping to clear his mind — but quickly reconsidered.

Kang made it through those trying times to hit .287 with 15 homers and an .816 OPS in 126 games before a season-ending knee injury. This month, the Orioles should be pointing to Kang as a sign of encouragement for their own Hyun Soo Kim, who is off to a tough start after signing a two-year, $7-million contact coming from the KBO.

Kim was Oh’s teammate on the ’08 gold medal team, with multiple hit titles and Gold Gloves playing for the Doosan Bears. But he began 0-for-23 with the Orioles before finally ending the slump Wednesday with an infield single. With so much attention, the pressure must get unbearable, and that’s what it sounded like for Kim in the days leading up to that first hit.

“Maybe I’m trying to show too much,” Kim told the Baltimore Sun. “I feel a little bit like I’m playing like a little kid who just into playing baseball.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Byung Ho Park, who seems to be thriving for the Twins only an hour’s drive south from Kim on I-75. Park, a first baseman, was 6-for-19 with three home runs in his first seven games. Over in Arizona, at Mariners’ camp, Dae Ho Lee didn’t waste any time living up to his slugging reputation by launching a 400-foot homer in only his fourth at-bat.

“The fastball was kind of slow, but I hit it hard,” Lee told MLB.com.

As for Oh, he won’t be closing games for the Cardinals. That job belongs to Trevor Rosenthal, which means one of Oh’s two colorful nicknames — “Final Boss” — doesn’t fit for his rookie season in St. Louis. But the other should work. With so much potential confusion swirling around him, and all those enemy bats waiting, the serene strength of a “Stone Buddha” would be a valuable asset. Don’t ask Oh to choose though.

“I’ll take both,” Oh said, smiling. “But then I’m going to have to perform up to the level of those nicknames.”

The expectations for these players, now stretched to two continents — and magnified — are never going away.

Major impact?

This offseason featured a significant influx of South Korean players, the year after Jung Ho Kang, an infielder, made a big impression with the Pirates. Here’s a list of the most notable additions, with their stats from the Korean Baseball Organization and/or Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball Organization:

BYUNG HO PARK Twins, 1B

Age:29

Contract: 4 yrs, $12M

KBO stats: 868 G, 281 BA, .951 OPS, 210 HR

Spring: 7 G, 6-for-19, 3 HR, 7 RBIs

HYUN SOO KIM Orioles, OF

Age: 28

Contract: 2 years, $7M

KBO stats: 1,131 G, .318 BA, .895 OPS, 142 HR

Spring: 9G, 2-for-27

DAE-HO LEE Mariners, 1B

Age: 33

Contract: 1 yr, $4M (with incentives)

KBO/NPB stats: 1,720 G, .303 BA, .901 OPS, 323 HR

Spring: 6G, 3-for-11, 1 HR

SEUNG HWAN OH Cardinals, RHP

Age: 33

Contract: 1 yr, $5M

KBO/NPB stats: 571 G, 1.81 ERA, 10.7 SO/9, 357 saves

Spring: 3 G, 3.1 IP, 0 ER

*Spring training stats through Friday

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