INCHEON-- As rookie seasons go, South Korean pitcher Kim Kwang-hyun couldn't have picked a worse year than 2020 to make his major league debut.
Not that anyone could have predicted the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the 2020 major league season was delayed by several months and cut short from 162 games to 60 games due to the virus. Kim, who had signed a two-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals in late 2019, had to wait until July 2020 for his first big league appearance.
And 34 games later, Kim is back in his native South Korea, having signed a four-year, 15.1 billion-won (US$12.2 million) contract with the SSG Landers last week. He had pitched for that Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) franchise from 2007 to 2019, when they were still called the SK Wyverns under a different corporate ownership. He is back as the highest-paid player in league history.
As he was reintroduced in the Incheon-based franchise's traditional colors of red and white Wednesday, Kim said he was grateful for the learning experience he had in his two years in America.
"Dating back to my childhood, I've been playing baseball for more than 20 years, but it was just a continuous learning process in the majors," Kim said at a press conference. "I was up against hitters who were stronger and faster than Korean players. And I didn't throw as hard as major league pitchers. So I had to learn how to make up for that in other aspects of the game and that helped me improve as a pitcher."
Kim went a perfect 3-0 as a rookie with a 1.62 ERA across 39 innings, spread over seven starts and one relief appearance. In 2021, Kim was 7-7 and had a 3.46 ERA in 106 2/3 innings, often getting an early hook from manager Mike Shildt and making six trips out of the bullpen along the way.
Off the field, Kim said he picked up a lot from St. Louis teammates, older and younger, on how to approach each game and how to connect with fans.
"Even some of the young players put a lot of thought into how they could best serve fans, and I learned a great deal from them," the 33-year-old Kim said. "Now that I am back home, I hope to become a player who can always give back to fans and build meaningful connections with them."
That up-and-down 2021 season couldn't have been easy on Kim, but the 33-year-old said he will only take positive memories back with him as he opens his second chapter in the KBO.
Kim let on that the protracted delay to the start of the 2020 season took its toll on him. He spoke of the time when, in the early days of the virus-related lockdown, he had difficulty buying basic necessities, such as water and toilet paper.
Kim then singled out two former Cardinals teammates in particular for helping him make adjustments to the new league and new country: fellow pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina, both of them longtime St. Louis icons and, in the case of Molina, a surefire Hall of Famer.
"It wasn't easy to get acclimated over those two years, and I want to take this opportunity to thank Wainwright and Molina for all their help," Kim said. "I remember the days when Adam invited me to his place (before the 2020 season), and we played catch in his front yard."
Kim said he is now prepared to share his wisdom with younger pitchers on the Landers.
"I know I am supposed to look after young guys and take them under my wing. This is one of the reasons why the team is paying me so much money," Kim said. "I probably shouldn't be talking too much, but I want to set a good example. And it's going to be great to see younger pitchers do well."
Kim isn't the first former major leaguer from South Korea to return to the KBO. In December, the Kia Tigers brought back star left-hander Yang Hyeon-jong after his one-year stint with the Texas Rangers in 2021.
Together, the two former MVPs are expected to drive up fan interest across the league, which suffered through declining TV ratings and growing apathy amid some off-field incidents last year.
"I am going to think long and hard about how to put fans back in the seats," Kim said. "First and foremost, games have to be fun. And players have to step up and make connections with our fans."
Source: Yonhap News Agency