18 July 2012

Following Up on Kim Seong-min and the Orioles

Lots of things happen behind closed doors.  As writers and fans, we try to piece together what is available for us to know about a situation and do our best to extrapolate reasonable actions and explanations where we do not know what occurred.  This extrapolation is difficult because most of us have never been in positions where these things occur.  We often do our best to understand what has transpired, but it is difficult when we are so outside of the actual profession and actual series of events.  This paragraph serves as a disclaimer that we all should carry with us when we assess the actions of a professional where we are so distant.

With that in mind, I want to discuss Kim Seong-min, the Orioles' attempt to sign him, and the resulting aftermath.  Last January, I wrote a couple articles on the fiasco that transpired.  Basically, the Orioles made a big splash by signing a Korean high schooler to a 550k signing bonus (which would roughly account for the half of the cost of annual signing bonuses in total for international amateur talent acquisition in years past).  It was a major move for a franchise that has stood by and watched others signing international talent for about a decade and a half.  Industry was relatively shocked by the move because no other MLB team had shown any interest in Kim Seong-min.  The Orioles reported rather rosey projections and suggested that he was bound to grow 3-4 inches as he matured.  Meanwhile, unnamed sources in the international scouting press suggested Seong-min was a non-prospect and that the signing bonus was a gross overpay.

Further complicating the perception of this move was that the Orioles did not consult the amateur baseball organization in South Korea, the KBA, before signing Kim Seong-min.  This violated the agreement that MLB had in place.  As a result of this violation, the Orioles were banned from scouting in KBA sanctioned events and MLB voided the contract.  Kim Seong-min was not allowed to have any contact with the Orioles for a few weeks and was banned from playing baseball in South Korea.  After Seong-min was allowed to come to the United States and communicate with the Orioles, he threw a session in Florida for a collection of evaluators.  The Orioles decided at that point to ship him back across the Pacific and elect not to sign him.  At the time of my writing, Seong-min is still banned from playing baseball in South Korea.

[Side Note - Essential reading on this topic also comes from Jon Bernhardt from a two part piece he wrote over at the Classical.  He is an excellent writer.  Follow him on twitter if you desire some discussion on baseball and a whole lot of peculiar retweets from all hours in the early early morning.]

Last week, Steve Melewski published an interview he had with Dan Duquette.  Go and read the whole interview, but there was one startling comment:
Steve: You mentioned a few minutes ago that one of the new markets the Orioles are in is Korea.  Weren't the Orioles banned from scouting Korea?
Duquette: "I didn't hear that. How are they enforcing that? I don't know."
Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the Dan Duquette all of New England came to know so well.  His somewhat heavy-handed, smartest-guy-in-the-room can come across a bit too strong at times.  I am not exactly sure what to make of the statement above.  The first sentence is obviously him being sarcastic and the second one...I am unsure.  I do not know what to make of it.  Maybe he literally took Melewski about being banned from Korea. 

The Orioles have not been banned from scouting in Korea.  If you remember, I have on a few occaissions taken Melewski to task for incorrectly writing this.  It is a ridiculous statement.  The Orioles are still free to attend non-KBA sanctioned events and hold their own tryouts.  So...maybe Duquette was responding to that.  I don't know.  I do know that it does not come off like that.  It comes off as him allegedly thumbing his nose at the KBA and, to some extent, MLB.  I hope, for his sake, it is about the annoyance of a question and not an outright declaration of ignoring a foreign amateur player ruling body.

To get a better handle on what has transpired since those initial interviews, I followed up with Yoo Jee-ho from the Yonhap News Agency.  As you remember from last winter, he was an excellent resource in finding out what was happening in South Korea and helped Camden Depot get the first story out with solid information.  Make sure you follow his twitter account if you have interest in Korean Sports.  If you have a question, my experience has been that he knows the answer.

Jon Shepherd: Has Baltimore's actions affected how MLB teams in general are perceived in Korea?  Or is it only Baltimore's reputation that has been tarnished?

Yoo Jee-ho: I am not sure Baltimore’s mishaps really affected MLB’s perception here much. People here still love their baseball, love watching Shin-Soo Choo of the Cleveland Indians whack extra-base hits, etc, etc. If anything, I think the Orioles’ image may have been tarnished, as you point out.

JS: What has been the reaction to Dan Duquette's interview with Steve Melewski?

YJ: I did read the interview. A Korean online paper carried that story as well. And readers’ reaction has ranged from anger (‘These guys are so arrogant!’) to almost bemusement (‘Hey, maybe that Duquette guy really doesn’t know.’). Others have questioned whether the Korea Baseball Association (KBA) can actually reinforce that ban. Are you going to check every foreign person’s ID at the gate? Should they ask anyone with a speed gun in seats behind the home plate to present their ID, or whatever proof that they may have showing they’re a major league scout? Now that I think of it, a few months after the ban was announced, it may have been put in place just for show. It may have been the KBA’s way of telling the angry/frustrated Korean public that, look, we’re doing something here.

JS: The Orioles had Kim Seong-min in Florida for a tryout and decided not to sign him.  What was your take on the reaction in South Korea?

YJ: Again, a wide range of reactions from the public. A lot of people obviously aren’t happy with the way Baltimore handled this. They say the Orioles essentially ruined the career of a teenage ballplayer (he’s still under that indefinite suspension for signing a pro contract as an underclass man) by violating the rule. On the other hand, a surprisingly large number of people also blame Kim for not having been more careful before signing (or at least attempting to sign) with the Orioles and for apparently being too greedy at that age. Kim’s parents have also taken some shots in cyberspace--after all, the kid is still in his teens. 

JS: What is Kim Seong-min currently doing?

YJ: He’s reportedly attending the same high school but is not playing ball at the moment. There’s been absolutely no indication when he will be able to play baseball again.

JS: What is the most important thing for Americans to understand about this situation?

YJ: A great number of Korean ball fans still throw around the term “exodus” when discussing MLB clubs’ signing of local players. Granted, there haven’t been that many players who signed in the last year or two, compared to, say, around 2007 and 2008. Fans here can be really protective of their homegrown talent. They want to see homegrown kids play for their hometown teams in the KBO, before they go overseas (if at all). KBO clubs can also be like that?wanting to sign local kids out of high school rather than losing them to MLB or Japanese clubs. That’s why the KBO has that rule in place where a player can only sign with a foreign team after playing seven seasons or their equivalent. Korean fans tend to have sort of an inferiority complex, compared to bigger baseball countries like the U.S. and Japan. ‘Those two countries have way more high school and college teams than we do, and they’ve obviously got bigger talent pools. But they want to take away our guys?' Those fans don’t see the other side of the equation--that seeing local guys do well overseas can be just as exciting from a fan’s perspective.

To me, it is a fascinating topic.  A solid conduit of information on Korean Baseball is Dan from the Korean Baseball Fansite MyKBO.net about their thoughts on the whole situation.  Dan actually grew up in Lancaster, PA and is sensitive to the Orioles plight.
JS: What is your opinion on how the Orioles have handled this situation?

Dan: The Orioles botched it completely by not status checking on Kim.  Had they waited until he began his final year and completed the status check with KBA, they could have signed him.  From my understanding at the time, and more obvious now, no other MLB club was interested in signing him. 

JS: What do you think about how the team has handled Kim Seong-min?

D: The Orioles probably feel that they do not owe Kim anything because MLB voided the contract.  It helped them get out of their mistake in signing him and saved the team money.  From an ethics and public relations perspective, the team should probably offer some degree of reconcilliation for Kim and his family.  For instance, they could go to KBO and KBA, declare the mistakes was their own and not Kim's, and ask for Kim's KBO and KBA ban to be lifted.
From what I have seen on the internet, there are some Orioles fans who think that Kim bears some responsibility.  That is correct, unless he was led to believer that the Orioles did everything by the book.  There's been speculation in Korea that Kim's family was allegedly told that the Orioles performed the check and did everything by the book.  Underclassmen rarely get signed in Korea, so Kim's family had no idea if what they were allegedly being told was accurate.  Kim likely did not have an agent providing advice who could have checked on this.

JS: You have read the Melewski interview with Duquette.  Any thoughts?

D: While Duquette may have a dry sense of humor, that does not translate well in Korean.  Basically saying that he has scouts there and questioning how KBA could enforce such a ban is only going to further upset KBA and, thus, possibly keeping the ban on the team for a longer period.  Additionally, it may hurt Kim's chance at getting his own ban lifted.  Honor and respect have a huge role in Korea.  The general sentiment is that the Orioles dishonored KBO/KBA by not status checking.  An honorable apology may not lift the ban, but it would help ease tensions.  There is talent in Korea and I see no benefit in upsetting the organizations that oversee baseball in the country.

JS: Do you have any lingering questions about the Orioles' effort in Korea?

D: An interesting person who has been a part of the Orioles effort has been Eun-chul Choi.  He is an older player, has barely had a cup of coffee in independent ball, and has been on the DL all year.  I wonder if he could be serving the Orioles as a player/scout.  I've heard that the Orioles used word of mouth and video to scout Kim and I wonder if Choi had input on the signing. 
 I am unsure whether or not the story of Kim Seong-min and the Orioles is over.  Certainly, he will not be in the organization, but he will likely have a presence as this situation has impacted how the Orioles operate.  Those changes will likely be clearer in the future.  

What strikes me here though is this:
  1. The Orioles did not follow well known rules on status checking.
  2. The Orioles signed a player no one else apparently wanted for 550k.
  3. The Orioles are prohibited from attending KBA sanctioned events.
  4. After being forced to null the original contract, the Orioles cross referenced their scouting and decided Kim Seong-min was not someone they wanted to sign.
From the outside, it just does not seem that this is how a team should operate.  The Orioles new desire to hit the international market is a great thing and it has been long needed as so many MLB players are found outside of this country.  However, this event and their recent absence of signing international talent well regarded by industry provides some doubt as to how effective they will be at implementing these changes.  It should be noted that the late start date for Duquette may have severely hampered scouting as many scouts had already signed on to new clubs, limiting what he had to choose to fill his organization.


Nick J Faleris said...

Great read, Jon. Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...

Good info

jcs790 said...

Nice article! Isn't this a sad case where greed (parents), lack of protocol and etiquette awareness (all parts involved!) proved to be the kiss of death to a promising career? The aftermath sounds complex, social death among the many options possible, just sad!