Jerry Royster isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry: The umps just don’t speak his language. Every time he races out of the dugout to argue a play, he has to bring along an interpreter.
Last year, the former Dodgers infielder took the helm of this city’s wildly popular Lotte Giants, becoming Korea’s first foreign manager.
From opening day, he was a stranger in a strange baseball land. Although the South Koreans pitched, hit and threw just like back home, most everything else was lost in translation.
In this league, umpires apologize for unpopular calls. Some change their minds as a gesture of politeness.
And the fans -- they’d never think of booing or heckling. Instead, they spend their energy belting out special songs for their hometown heroes. Many don orange garbage bags as Korean-style rally caps.
At the Giants’ 2008 home opener, fans packed the stadium four hours before game time to revel in every warmup throw. They quickly elevated Royster to rock-star status -- about 20,000 once showed up, not for a game, but to watch him tape a commercial in which he spoke Korean.
And forget hot dogs and popcorn. These fans crave a different variety of snacks to go with their ballpark beers: dried squid or live octopus, anyone?
Royster, 56, loves every minute. After playing for five major league teams over 16 seasons, nine of them with the Atlanta Braves, and after managing the Milwaukee Brewers, he is sure of this: Koreans are more baseball-crazy than Americans.
“Lotte Giants fans are Yankees, Red Sox the Cubs fans all in one,” he said. “They’re more passionate than any major league team could ever dream of.”
As the 2009 World Baseball Classic opens this week with games in Tokyo, Mexico City, Toronto and San Juan, Puerto Rico -- the final will be at Dodger Stadium -- the Korean national team plans to continue its winning ways.
And that, Royster said, requires no translation.
In his first year, he took the cellar-dwelling Giants to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Even with a shorter 126-game schedule, the Giants attracted more fans than many major league teams and doubled attendance from the year before.
Long-suffering loyalists dubbed their new manager “Hurricane Royster” and composed a rally song in his honor.
But Royster, now in his second season, said it’s not just fans who excite him: Koreans play good baseball.
Korean players’ ability is well-known -- except in the U.S., where only a few, such as former Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park, are household names.
But that is changing. Korea won the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics without losing a game, and in the 2006 WBC lost only once -- to archrival Japan in the final. Only Cuba was ranked ahead of Korea in the International Baseball Federation’s world rankings.
“We’re not a secret to most countries,” Royster said. “It’s only the Americans who are now starting to realize there’s good baseball being played here.” Royster didn’t know what to expect in late 2007 when old friend Bobby Valentine, manager of Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines, called him.
Shin Dong-bin, owner of the Lotte teams in Japan and Korea, wanted to shake things up by putting a foreign manager in the southern city of Busan. Valentine recommended Royster, who’d just been fired as manager of the Las Vegas 51s, then the Dodgers’ triple-A team.
“I told him he was going to take over the Cubs of Asia,” said Valentine, a former Dodger who once managed the New York Mets. “They were a blue-collar team that never won but everybody loved anyway. The fans were dying for a competitive team and a leader.”
Royster’s adjustment was swift. Arriving in Seoul baggy-eyed from the 12-hour flight, he was swamped by reporters. Only after an impromptu news conference was he able to catch his connecting flight.
The president of the country, Lee Myung-bak, wanted to meet him and so, it seemed, did everyone else. He had to switch to an unlisted number and get a full-time escort to help him wade through the crowds -- even in the lobby of his apartment building.
When Royster finally saw his new team, he gulped.
“They didn’t play the game very well,” he said. “The owner said, ‘Don’t expect to win, just do your best and maybe things will improve.’ ”
Royster’s message to his players was simple: Relax, have fun and play ball. In a league where managers are often imperious, he was a cheerleader.
“Our players had gotten so used to being lousy, many had given up,” team spokesman Kim Geon-tae said. “He told them ‘You’re a professional ballplayer.’ He won the hearts of players and fans.”
When a Giant homered or made an inning-ending defensive play, Royster was often first to greet him on the dugout steps with a high-five.
“It was unseen here, a manager who was one of the guys,” said Aaron Shinsano, a scout for the Chicago Cubs and co-founder of East Windup Chronicle, a website devoted to Asian baseball. “Managers in Korea are gods, basically. Here was a foreigner who treated his players like humans.”
Then something even more foreign happened: The Giants started winning.
After finishing second to last in the eight-team league the previous season, the Giants won the home opener, 11-1, and kept going, winning more than 70 games before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Royster, meanwhile, was winning over fans, once singing the team’s fight song before a delighted crowd.
On opening day, four hours before the first pitch, Royster said he stared slack-jawed at a 30,000-seat stadium that was filled to capacity. With no assigned seating and few advance ticket sales, fans cluster early.
“As soon as the gates open, people swarm into the stadium like ants coming out of ant holes,” said Curtis Jung, a Korean American from L.A. who is Royster’s interpreter.
In the seventh inning, ushers hand out orange plastic bags for fans to clean up their trash. That’s when the ballpark really comes alive: Fans attach the bags to their heads and sing songs for each player.
“It’s ridiculous -- the energy,” Royster said.
Win or lose, Giants fans cheer until their voices are hoarse. After a game -- even on the road -- fans form a phalanx from the locker room to the team bus. Everyone wants a piece of Royster.
“It’s like a mosh pit,” Jung said. “Picture a rock star going through a crowd. It’s the same thing. People are clawing at him, giving him high-fives and pats on the back. Sometimes he can’t get through and we have to sneak out a back door.”
Royster is unfazed by the fans -- it’s the umpires who baffle him. Few skippers here leave the dugout to argue calls. Those who do keep the tiffs brief, low-key.
Royster brought the good old American dirt-kicking style of home plate confrontations.
“Jerry’s a competitor and when he disagrees with a call, watch out,” Jung said. “He runs out there pretty quickly. He’s already crossing the base line and I have to spring after him.”
Sometimes the faceoff is comical. “Jerry doesn’t stop for me to interpret what he’s saying,” Jung said. “He puts the umps on the defensive. They think, ‘Here’s this foreign guy yelling at me in English and I don’t know what he’s saying.’ And I’m in the middle.”
At first, the umpires were deferential. “It got to the point that if I came out to argue, many umps felt I must be right,” Royster said. “They’d start apologizing. And I would go out and explain, before I made my point, that ‘I need to know what you think.’ ”
The umpires got used to Royster’s rants, but Jung didn’t.
“Sometimes the umps try to calm Jerry down, sometimes they yell back,” he said. “Then suddenly Jerry will turn and storm back to the dugout. I just follow him in. What can I do?”
Inside the dugout it’s no different.
“Jerry gets impatient that Curtis isn’t translating fast enough,” said pitching coach Fernando Arroyo, a former pitcher with the Tigers, Twins and Athletics. “He’ll say, ‘I was telling you to say this.’ And Curtis will say, ‘I was trying. Then you started in with something else before I was even done.’ They’re like Jackie Gleason and Art Carney.”
Royster knows there’s one other thing he can count on when he returns to the dugout: the fans cheering him wildly.
“It’s easy to love a winner,” Royster said of Giants fans. “I just hope they continue to love us if we start to lose again.”