How Doth Lotte Love Baseball?

In the Los Angeles Times, John M. Glionna profiles the unlikely manager of a once hapless Korean baseball team, the Lotte Giants of Busan: former LA Dodgers infielder Jerry Royster.

Reporting from Busan, South Korea — Jerry Royster isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry: The umps just don’t speak his language. Every time he races out of the dugout to argue a play, he has to bring along an interpreter.

Last year, the former Dodgers infielder took the helm of this city’s wildly popular Lotte Giants, becoming Korea’s first foreign manager….

In his first year, he took the cellar-dwelling Giants to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Even with a shorter 126-game schedule, the Giants attracted more fans than many major league teams and doubled attendance from the year before.

Long-suffering loyalists dubbed their new manager “Hurricane Royster” and composed a rally song in his honor.

But Royster, now in his second season, said it’s not just fans who excite him: Koreans play good baseball.

Korean players’ ability is well-known — except in the U.S., where only a few, such as former Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park, are household names.

But that is changing. Korea won the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics without losing a game, and in the 2006 WBC lost only once — to archrival Japan in the final. Only Cuba was ranked ahead of Korea in the International Baseball Federation’s world rankings.

“We’re not a secret to most countries,” Royster said. “It’s only the Americans who are now starting to realize there’s good baseball being played here.” Royster didn’t know what to expect in late 2007 when old friend Bobby Valentine, manager of Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines, called him.

Shin Dong-bin, owner of the Lotte teams in Japan and Korea, wanted to shake things up by putting a foreign manager in the southern city of Busan. Valentine recommended Royster, who’d just been fired as manager of the Las Vegas 51s, then the Dodgers’ triple-A team.

“I told him he was going to take over the Cubs of Asia,” said Valentine, a former Dodger who once managed the New York Mets. “They were a blue-collar team that never won but everybody loved anyway. The fans were dying for a competitive team and a leader.”

I doff my authentic Chiba Lotte Marines baseball cap to Mr. Shin—and also to Bobby Valentine, who showed the way. Now, if only Marty Brown can lead my old NPB Central League favorites, the Hiroshima Toyo (= Mazda) Carp, to win the Japan Series this year. And in Korea, Go Busan!

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