Another, more challenging market to enter has been Asia. In January, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted General Manager John Mozeliak as saying the Cardinals hired two individuals over the off-season to "ramp up" the organization's activity in the Asian Leagues. They are Japanese-speaking Rob Fidler and special assistant Matt Slater.
The initial take from their and others' labor may be coming evident. At last month's Winter Warm-Up fan event, Luhnow mentioned the organization will be bringing in a pitcher from South Korea as well as a catcher from the nation of Hungary to minor league spring training camp. Neither is officially under contract at this time.
Hungarian Denes Simonyi is a 21-year-old right-handed hitter who posted a .443/.562/620 (BA/OBP/SLG) line with one home run, 30 RBIs, 22 runs scored and seven stolen bases over 19 games and 79 at-bats for the Szentendre Sleepwalkers last season. His club went 8-2 in the regular season and 7-2 in the playoffs. To try to help put the numbers into perspective, Simonyi's team aggregate batting line was .343/.542/.478.
Not surprisingly, the Cardinals' own Mad Hungarian, Al Hrabosky, was deeply involved in the Simonyi invitation. Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations John Vuch explains.
"Al Hrabosky was instrumental in bringing Simonyi to our attention. As an ambassador for Hungarian baseball, he felt that it would be good for the development of baseball in Hungary for one of their better players to get an opportunity to experience a US professional spring training camp, and with the Cardinals looking to open doors internationally, we thought it was a good match to give Simonyi the chance to attend our camp this spring," Vuch said.
Hrabosky made his first-ever visit to his ancestral nation last March on a baseball-oriented goodwill mission and later entertained Hungarian officials in the USA, too.
The Korean, Jai Chul Chung, is a 25-year-old, born March 13, 1982, who recently completed his mandatory military service obligation. The 6-foot-0, 180 pound right-handed pitcher (and left-handed hitter) graduated from Chung Won High School and Sung Geun Kwan University. More details on Chung will be posted here as we get them.
The South Korean government has legislated what is called a conscription system, aimed at deterring aggression from communist neighbor North Korea. The law states that all South Korean men aged 18 to 30 who are physically fit must serve at least two years in the military. According to reports from September, the Korean military has 680,000 members and is the sixth-largest in the world, underlining the long-standing political tensions in the region.
While baseball in Hungary might be considered at the club level, Korea has a long history in professional baseball, including international competition.
The major league in Korea is the eight-team KBO, Korean Baseball Organization, which began in 1982. Several natives who are also former major leaguers play there, including Jae-Weong Seo and Hee-Seop Choi. The latter is most infamous with Cardinals fans for his time as a member of Los Angeles Dodgers, specifically due to collision at first base with Scott Rolen in 2005 that headed the former Cards' third baseman down the path to three surgeries, irreparably wounded feelings and an eventual trade out of the country.
Among the dozen or so players from America signed with the KBO for 2008 are former Royals starter Jose Lima and ex-Dodger infielder Wilson Valdez. Former Milwaukee Brewers skipper Jerry Royster is the not only the first American manager in the league, but also the first foreigner in that role. He leads the Lotte Giants.
The KBO's official website, almost entirely in Korean, does include the following information. "In 2001, a player agreement between Korea and the United States is revised and signed. A posting system is to be implemented between the two countries so that when a Korean professional player wishes to play in the US, it can be posted to the 30 US teams with the highest bidding team being able to negotiate a contract. In the case of Korea and Japan, an article is written stating that in regards to player scouting, the rules and regulations of the country involved shall be respected."
Though unconfirmed, it would seem that as an amateur, Chung was not bound by these posting rules and therefore free to join the Cardinals camp this spring.
Both players are expected to arrive with the rest of the Cardinals minor leaguers in Jupiter, Florida on March 3.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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