Knuckleball Millionaire and His Wonderland
by Kim Hyun-sung / Baseball in Korea
“Min-sanity” made it to the headlines as a Korean tech-millionare knuckleballer who crossed the Pacific to play for the Rockland Boulders of the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball (Can-Am League, canamleague.com).
By now, we all know who he is. Hur Min (허민, 37), who made his fortune off online video games in the early-2000 tech boom, claims to have $900 million in assets. Obviously, he was not satisfied with that. After leaving Korea to pursue a degree in music at the Berklee School of Music, he decided to call and pay Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro a visit in order to learn his signature pitch.
Considered an oddball by many, Hur’s story is somewhat of an inspiration to the people of Korea, a country where traditional norm is steep and sticking to the mainstream is forceed by parents and those around you. Actually, quite inspiring enough that the currently elected President of Korea, Park Geun-hye, wanted him in her election campaign last year.
Well, regardless of his disastrous debut (3 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 BB) today, I would like to tell you the story about the baseball team he owns, an inspiring tale in Korean baseball.
The Goyang Wonders
During his tech-tycoon years, when asked about his dream, Hur Min answered that his goal was to become an owner of a baseball team or a music artist (which explains his studies at the Berklee School of Music).
About seven months after fellow tech-billionaire Kim Taek-jin, Founder and CEO of NCsoft, surprised the Korean baseball community by announcing his endeavor to start a professional basebal team in early-2011, Hur signed a deal with the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) and the city of Goyang (고양시, first ever professional team to collaborate with a local government, while most KBO teams are large corporations where the stadium rent may be the only link between the team and community.) This was months before Kim won the approval by the other professional clubs to open his team, the NC Dinos. While Kim took the mandatory steps to run a professional baseball club, Hur took a different road.
Based in this northern suburb of Seoul (Korea’s capital), he named his team the “Wonders” after his company, Wonder Holdings LLC. The franchise fee of 1 billion won (≒ $910,000) that he paid was 1/10 of what the NC Dinos had paid the KBO. However, Hur’s ambition was not the Korean Baseball Championship (Korea’s top professional league). Instead, he envisioned more of a non-profit organization, an incubator, and a team that fulfills the dreams of those who wish to make it to the big stage.
Competition is fierce with only nine professional teams (ten in 2015) participating in the seven-month long Korean Baseball Championship. Each year, around 100 players are selected out of over 700 applicants in the First-Year Player Draft. Including those who decide not to sign with their teams, over 600 players are left to either go play in college or find other opportunities. Opportunities in which baseball mostly likely would not be an option.
Playing overseas, which had been an option, has become a dangerous risk for players nowadays. The KBO has felt they have lost their talents to Major League Baseball in players like Park Chan-ho and Choo Shin-soo (Ryu Hyun-jin would be the first successful player to make the jump from the KBC to MLB). Many have been accused of “fleeing” to Japan or the States after Korea brought attention to international scouts after what they displayed in the 2006 (semi-finals) and 2009 (runner-up) World Baseball Classic.
As means to “protect” the talent pool, the KBO amended their regulations, and made it mandatory for final year college and high school student athletes to enter the First-Year Player Draft. The new rule also hit amateur players who left Korea with a two-year probation when they decide to play for and seven-year probation if they wish to work as a coach for a KBO team. They are allowed to sign with a team only through the draft, in which they will receive the league minimum without any signing bonuses. Schools who had these student athletes leave overseas had their subsidies and youth development fund removed for the following five years. This created fear among the students, having them think that their personal goals could endanger welfare of their classmates.
Well, these are the kind of players the Goyang Wonders are looking for. Through tryout camps, they recruit those who wish to challenge, and to find playing time in order to anchor themselves up to the Korean Baseball Championship: players on probation, journeyman, players with injuries and those who have been released looking for a comeback, non-draftees, and even people like you and me.
Players receive less than the league minimum of 24 million won (≒ $21,900). However, everything else is provided by the team. They even have their spring training in Kochi, Japan. Moreover, the players are given the opportunity to be sent to a KBO team during the regular season. So far, the team has sent five in 2012, and six this season. In return, the Wonders, well, they receive nothing. In fact, they give a bonus to those players to congratulate and encourage them.
Hur mentions in the Wonders’ website, “Besides being an avid fan of baseball, I thought an independent ball club would be the best way to give back to society the success I’ve achieved as a venture business.” He believes there would be nothing more hopeful for the ordinary people if they see a broken down player revive himself to become a star in the big stage.
Manager Fit for the Team
Who better to manage the Wonders other than Kim Sung-keun (김성근). Hur Min persuaded Kim, who at age 70, was considering a coaching opportunity in Japan or a possible retirement. Kim liked Hur’s philosophy in running the club, and his goal of eventually having a Korean team play in a league overseas.
Kim himself is known in the Korean baseball realm to have a strong character, a trait that Korean owners would deem as being different and unwilling to tolerate. After bringing home three championship rings and a possible fourth to the SK Wyverns, he was fired by the team during mid-season in 2011 after his contract negotiation went deadlock.
Dubbed as Yasin (야신, “God of baseball”), manager Kim is known to raise poor and mediocre clubs into contenders, contenders into champions, and champions into dynasties. Now, he is raising dreams into realities.
Kim said during a press conference that he feels a sense of responsibility to set a great example for future independent teams to start up.
A Wonderful Challenge
Well, I suppose things do not go easily as they are planned. Granted with 48 exhibition games against the Futures League ballclubs in 2012, the Wonders claim that the KBO promised them an official entry in the 2013 Futures League regular season through their agreement.
This was not the case, however, as the KBO contradicted the Wonders’ claim saying they merely said they would consider about the entry after reviewing the team’s 2012 results (finished with a 20-21-7 record). Perhaps the team’s cause was displeasing to the other ballclubs, mainly consisted of mega-conglomerates, eventually influencing the KBO’s response.
With another 48-game season, the Goyang Wonders are seeking opportunities for more playing time for their passion-driven players. They have bolstered their pitching staff with four foreigners, who are also searching for opportunities to prove themselves, thinking they would need a good-looking record to convince the KBO for a possible full season in years to come.
Much like Hur Min’s first outing and his journey through American baseball, this is a start and it will accompany a long battle for the franchise to settle into the league. And, as passionate the players and coaching staff are, Hur has proven to be a wonder by becoming the example himself.