Baseball has a long history in South Korea. The professional league – the Korea Baseball Organization – has been around since 1982, though the sport has been played in the country for much longer. But something relatively new to the country, though many other nations around the world have it, is independent baseball.
It’s a professional league – currently there are four teams in the KIBA that started up last year. But it operates on a different system than the KBO, even though the teams in indie ball often play KBO minor league teams.
Choi Ikseong, the founder of one such team called the Journeymen, said that he started the team three years ago to fill a gap in Korean baseball. In America, the baseball league is divided into many divisions such as Class A, Double-A, and the Major League, but here, such a system doesn’t exist.
“In Korea, there are only Triple-A and the major league, so young players who have failed in those leagues have nowhere to play. I have seen a lot of young kids who have entered the big league but were expelled quickly,” he said. “So this independent league is a great replacement for Single-A, Double-A and many other small minor leagues, and also gives players a second chance.”
Eric McDaniel, a player and also instructor for Journeymen, expands on that idea, saying that in Korea many players often see their professional years cut short by having to take two years off to serve in the military. But more than that, he said that he and Choi hope to further develop the independent league as well as baseball culture as a whole in the country.
“We know that the KBO is very vertical. And it’s horizontal with its association – it’s rules… So Koreans think it’s only KBO or nothing,” he said. “So, Choi Ikseong and I wanted to provide more opportunities for these kids.
Ins and outs of an indie team
The independent baseball league in Korea functions similarly to the KBO, though due to the smaller number of teams, they play about 60 games during the six-month season from March to September instead of the 144 games that the major league teams play.
They train five days a week and play official games on Mondays, though outside playing other KIBA teams, they also play college teams and KBO Futures League teams.
However, unlike major teams owned by conglomerates, KIBA is not limited to the same restrictions in terms of recruitment. They can sign as many foreign players as they can handle. The Journeymen currently have three foreign players – Francisco Rosario from the Dominican Republic, Ramon Ulacio from Venezuela and Eric McDaniel from the U.S.
Many of the local players on the Journeymen are former professional players just out of military service and high school prospects who didn’t sign with the KBO right away.
Choi, the founder of the Journeymen, has played baseball a long time, including a stint with an independent baseball team in Long Beach in the U.S. The main reason he wanted to create the team was because while the U.S. and Japan have long had established independent leagues, it was something that Korea lacked. He said that he faced a lot of prejudice when he started, with people telling him that he wouldn’t make it. And there were a lot of hardships including financial issues.
He explained that often baseball teams are funded by the government, but governments don’t see the independent league as a business. “For us, we want a more intimate relationship with fans and we’re hoping to turn that into a sports business,” he said.
“But the hardest part was the notion of the baseball players, for them to acknowledge there is an independent league,” he said. He added that they don’t have a lot of fans yet because they just started the league and there are also marketing issues and it is difficult to find proper stadiums and venues to use. The Journeymen are lucky enough to play a lot of games at a big stadium in Mokdong.
“However, the level of interest keeps growing, so it has the potential to grow bigger,” he said.
For Rosario and Ulacio, both 27, coming to the independent league in Korea was nothing short of a big change. The two played in the minor leagues in the U.S. and came to Korea for the opportunity to break into Asian baseball. Francisco Rosario played for New York Yankees AA program. His defense was compared to Andrelton Simmons of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ramon Ulacio played for St. Louis Cardinals AA program pitching consistently 88-92mph and can touch 94mph.
Rosario said going from the Yankees system to an independent team was a near complete turnaround for him. Then, he said, you were given just about everything you could ask for and coming to the independent team was liking starting over. But it’s what pushes him to keep going and working hard. He said for him, the chance to break into the KBO was one of the biggest reasons he came, though ultimately, he hopes to learn a lot and get good experience. For Ulacio, he hopes beyond possibly playing in the KBO, he wouldn’t mind possibly having the chance to play ball in other Asian leagues.
But more than that, they just want to do their best for the team.
“We just came over and try to do our best to help the team, first of all. And do the most that we can. And besides that, if we can hopefully get the opportunity to move up and get picked up by another team like the KBO or whatever, we will do our best to keep playing the game that we love,” Rosario said.
Ulacio added that above all his goal is to help the team win in anyway that he can.
“So it’s not just this year that we can come over and play in Korea, that we can keep playing here. Help the team and just enjoy and appreciate the opportunity that we are getting over here,” he said. “I don’t want to take it for granted. I just focus on trying to help the team, in helping lead the young guys that don’t have as much experience as me. I just don’t want to take that for granted. I just want to play hard every day. And do my best – how I always do.”
If you build it…
Part of building and growing the independent system and baseball culture in Korea, is getting people to understand what players go through in order to play professionally, according to McDaniel. He said that players dedicate their lives to baseball starting in middle school and high school, often joining a sports curriculum in their schools which only focuses on baseball and sports instead of traditional studies. From there, there is only one place to go in the country – the KBO. With only 10 pro teams and 12 in the KBO Futures League, spots are limited. Not to mention, the KBO holds a near monopoly on high school prospects, making it difficult for them to be scouted by outside leagues.
“So you have these kids train like it’s the military for baseball ever since high school, but only have a vertical platform to get there, I mean, what happens after? What other opportunities do they have? They either go back to the KBO system as a coach or be an assistant coach at a high school,” McDaniel said. “They dedicate their whole lives to it and when they’re done with baseball, they have limited opportunities.”
This is where the independent league comes in.
At first glance, having another league with more teams provides opportunities for more jobs in baseball from coaches to front office to even instructors.
It also provides a second chance to players who have their careers interrupted while they are still in their prime by military service, said McDaniel. Without multi-division leagues in place, players can turn to the independent league to get back into the swing of things.
“The indie ball program is more of a facilitation for those kinds of players as well. You have these awesome players from the KBO and then they’re done because of two years? Sometimes they’re in their prime… so we want to provide these kids with the opportunity to play professional ball again because they have that talent,” he said.
McDaniel says as a Korean American adoptee who played competitive ball in the States, people like him working in the independent league can also play a role as an international bridge. Not only does he play for the Journeymen and is an instructor, he helps recruit players from overseas and connects local players with international leagues.
“In order to grow, Korean baseball as a whole, it needs to internationalize more. It needs to cross its borders. And they need to have people that understand it fundamentally at a player level, at a cultural level and also understand how we bridge it,” he said.
He added that Choi’s vision locally is to provide opportunity and to grow baseball as a community. McDaniel’s role in this, he continues, is to use his experience of playing baseball in the U.S. and 10 years running businesses in Korea to help.
“I understand both cultures and industries very well,” he said. “I want to give these kids visions and dreams and opportunities outside Korea. That’s important.”
Expanding beyond borders
McDaniel said that while he respects the KBO for having a good recruiting and training system in place, there are limitations. And part of that is allowing prospects and player opportunities to go outside of Korea.
Korea is a small country, so the baseball industry is obviously going to be smaller than others like the U.S. As such, with the number of talented players growing, they need to have the chance to find a place even if it’s not in Korea.
“There’s no junior college program. There’s just KBO camps. There’s just high school camps. The intermediate program to develop high school athletes into a different level and place them into better opportunities is very limited because of the current system that’s already built that needs to be changed. Because the athletes are getting hugely better and not enough opportunities are being provided,” he said.
He continues that his personal goal is to show young players a different opportunity and a different way of baseball. That they aren’t just limited to the KBO model.
“If you come outside of the KBO because of the army, you’re not left with nothing. You have something here to do it again. Not only are you going to be playing for the indie team, I’m going to be watching, evaluating and scouting you. I’m going to be the one talking to MLB teams, the independent teams all over the world that I think I can get them placed at,” he said. “But I need to do it now and I need to have the support locally from Korean fans that understand it. And of course, expats as well.”
He said that through the independent league in Korea, he can help place players in other countries, whether it’s the Australian League, Taiwan league or even independent leagues in the U.S.
On the flip side, he said that it’s important to bring in foreign players to fill the gaps. Currently, Korean baseball is lacking power pitchers, so this is one place where foreign players can fill in and help further Korean baseball as a whole, which is both McDaniel and Choi’s ultimate goal.
“Our vision is the same because he loves baseball, I love baseball. He’s very dedicated to what he does. His passion is baseball. My passion is building business and baseball – the first thing I ever loved is baseball. And giving opportunities to kids,” he said. “I don’t think he or I could be happier, you know, growing the industry and making sure to provide these kids’ dream come true.”