Korean baseball: Brand new Asian flavor

Early bird Eagles from Korean league signal spring training's return
2012-01-12T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T16:07:32Z Korean baseball: Brand new Asian flavorPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 12, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Eighteen hours after the Hanwha Eagles boarded an airplane in Incheon, South Korea - after stops at LAX, Sky Harbor and a bus ride from Phoenix to Tucson - they settled into their rooms at the midtown Doubletree Hotel.

It was 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Most athletes I've met would have spent Wednesday in bed, or a chair as thick as David Wells, crushed by the Jet Lag Goblin.

The Eagles, however, knocked on the Kino Sports Complex clubhouse at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

They were ready to start.

Where were the pitching machines, again?

"We know it's kinda early," said Phil Huh, the Eagles' international director and my translator Wednesday. "That's the Korean style."

They dressed in parking-cone-orange caps with white uniforms and built khaki shade tents that read, in stencil, "Hanwha Eagles Spring Camp."

They unpacked baskets of baseballs still marked with Korean Air tags.

They stretched and threw and didn't leave the complex's back baseball fields for the Tucson Padres' clubhouse until about 1 p.m.

They ate a catered lunch, though the Eagles' private chef, flown in for training camp, will cook breakfast and dinner.

So ended Day 1 of Pima County's association with Korean Professional Baseball.

The Eagles, who feature former big-leaguer Chan Ho Park, will train at Kino for six weeks. Pitchers and catchers worked out for the first time Wednesday; position players report Monday.

The NC Dinos, a KPB expansion team that will begin play in 2013, arrive in Tucson next week and will stay until March 5.

The teams are on one-year deals, paying the complex's rental fee, but will huddle with Jack Donovan before going home.

Donovan - whose Baseball's International Group has pursued Asian teams for Tucson for three years - said the 80 or so KPB players, staff and coaches will provide a "tremendous economic impact" on the area.

The Eagles want to shop - they mentioned the Outlets at Anthem - and plan to golf on rare open dates.

Donovan admitted that, were Major League Soccer to settle at Kino long term, importing Japanese or major-league spring training would be difficult. Koreans could work, though.

It was encouraging to see the complex busy Wednesday.

Gem show tents are being built in the parking lot.

I zipped my Prius through football coach Houston Nutt's walk-through in the stadium parking lot - behind the free safety - as his team prepared for Monday's Casino Del Sol College All-Star Game.

Training camps for MLS teams start next month.

"What we decided at a meeting between sports authority and facilities people is, 'Let's try do as much as we can this year,'" Donovan said.

The Eagles will train four days - all open to the public - for every one off.

"It felt weird when I got to Tucson at first," relief pitcher Ju-Young Shin told me through a translator. "The environment is totally different than Korea."

Shin had never traveled to the continental United States - the team trained in Hawaii last year - and felt more at home on the field.

"When I came to the stadium, I got impressed, because of the environment, the facility quality."

Min-Chul Chung, a former Korean star who now serves as the Eagles' pitching coach, said Korean baseball tries to combine the strictness of Japan with the entertainment value of America.

The first time Chung came to Arizona, it was 1999, and the Eagles trained alongside Alex Rodriguez's Seattle Mariners.

They returned home to win their only KPB title.

Maybe training in this state is lucky, Chung said, adding, through a translator, that "I really like the weather of this area."

He should: It was minus-6 degrees when the team left Korea.

I asked if, after a morning of throwing and catching in the sunshine, it felt like baseball season already.

He shook his head. It was, after all, only Jan. 11.

He answered, for the only time, in English.

"Not … yet," he said.

But it's a start.

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