Korean Invitee Offers Hope for Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals have invited a Korean pitcher, Jai Chul Chung, to their minor league spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida starting on March 3. It is perhaps the start of something bigger for both the player and the organization. Scouting Supervisor Chuck Fick explains.

Chuck Fick has been the St. Louis Cardinals' main man on the West Coast for years. The scouting supervisor has been responsible for signing a number of future major leaguers including Danny Haren, Coco Crisp, Bud Smith, Skip Schumaker and Adam Kennedy.

Yet, even Fick seemed surprised upon receiving a call last fall from his boss, Jeff Luhnow, Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development. With the organization looking to stick their toe in the water in the East, Fick found himself on an airplane headed to a player tryout camp halfway around the globe – in Korea.

"Jeff really sent me on a reconnaissance mission to learn about the KBO (the Korean Baseball Organization is the professional league there) and how it works over there. The organizations are only allowed to scout in certain areas of their country and they hold the rights to the players like in Japan. So they are about 28 years old by the time their military service is over and they are free to sign elsewhere," Fick noted.

Even then, players have to go through a posting system that awards them to the highest bidder. So, organizations from the US are looking for young amateurs or older players who fell through the cracks, men like Jai Chul Chung.

Chung is 25 years old, born March 13, 1982. Because Korean does not translate directly into English, his name has also been represented elsewhere as Jung Jae Chul and Jeong Jae Cheol. In Korean, the family name is listed first, so it would be Chung Jai Chul.

The 6-foot-0, 180 pound right-handed pitcher (and left-handed hitter) was once among the top high school pitchers in South Korea, and was reportedly sought after by the KBO after graduating.

Rather than sign a professional contract, he opted to go to college instead. Chung played college ball at Sung Geun Kwan University, (a.k.a. Seong-Gyun-Gwan, Seong Gyoon and Sungkyunkwan University) where he suffered an arm injury that caused him to miss several years of action.

During the time missed due to injury, Chung proceeded as if he was finished with baseball and entered the South Korean military. As his arm returned to health, he began to work out along with his uncle, a former Korean professional player, and current athletic director at Dong Kook University.

Chung only very recently completed his mandatory two-year military service obligation. In fact, he was not discharged until December 9, and attended the early October tryout camp apparently while on leave.

This open combine/tryout included roughly 300 players of which roughly 170 were pitchers. Numerous scouts were in attendance from major league organizations including Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, the Angels and Philadelphia, along with the Cardinals' Fick.

"The field conditions were really poor with an all-dirt infield and it was a rainy day but the best kid out there was Chung. He threw 88-92 (MPH) off a bad mound and can spin a curveball. He has a good, quick arm.

"I saw him throw a two-inning practice game on a short, treacherous mound. And two days later, he threw again and the mound was even worse – after they were done working on it. He was the best arm there, I can tell you that," Fick explained.

There should be no doubt that Chung will be in camp for his arm, not his bat, despite being a left-handed hitter. "I said, ‘Can you hit?' I made him take a swing for me. ‘Ok, can you at least bunt? We're in the National League, you know!", Fick laughed.

As a result of the trip and Fick's recommendation, Luhnow invited Chung to the Cardinals' minor league spring training camp. "I hope he gets a fair chance," Fick said while reminding me that Chung is for all intents and purposes equivalent to a high school pitcher.

Another challenge will be in basic communications as Chung speaks no English. His California-based agent John Choi is going the extra mile, or should I say 3,000 miles, for his client. Choi will be attending camp with Chung to serve as his personal translator.

"I tip my hat to Jeff for bringing Chung in. Let's see what he's got. Who knows?", Fick said.

No matter whether Chung makes it or not, the Cardinals have officially begun their efforts in Korea with this move. "My trip was about trying to start out over there and begin to establish relationships in Korea. I think it is going to be a good thing," Fick said in closing.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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