By Troy Stangarone
As a Chicago Cubs fan, I’ve watched the slow influx of Korean players into the major leagues in recent years with interest. When the Cubs first signed Choi Hee Seop he was pegged as the power hitter who would eventually succeed Mark Grace as the Cubs first basemen. That didn’t work out, and the signing was originally controversial in Korea where Choi was temporarily banned from playing. However, over time, the Cubs and other major league teams began signing more Korean players as the level of play in Korea advanced. That may soon change because of the recent signing by the Baltimore Orioles of Korea’s most promising young pitcher, Kim Seong-min.
By signing Kim Seong-min to a contract, the Orioles have set off a controversy that has already led to Orioles’ scouts being banned from Korea and Kim being banned from playing or coaching in Korea for life. The controversy over the signing stems from the Orioles failure to follow protocol in signing the 17 year old Kim, which calls for Major League Baseball (MLB) to notify the Korea Baseball Association (KBO), which runs Korea’s professional baseball league, before negotiating with Kim to determine if he was eligible to be signed. Unlike the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico where a player can be signed at the age of 16 (as well as for many other international players), Korean players are only allowed to be contacted by Korean or foreign teams during their final year of high school. Kim was only a rising junior in Korea.
Though the contract is ultimately expected to stand, Kim’s signing has also raised concerns about the increasing number of Korean players who are being signed by major league teams and the ultimate impact these departures will have on the development of youth baseball in Korea. Much of this is due to the increasing level of play in Korea, which finished second in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, baseball’s Johnny come lately answer to soccer’s World Cup. As the quality of players in Korea grows, there will be increasing interest from MLB in bringing players to the United States.
The increased interest from professional teams in the United States has made it more difficult for Korea to develop youth baseball programs. The most recent incident is pushing the KBO to seek to revise its agreement with MLB to prohibit major league teams from signing amateurs in Korea, but instead limiting signings to players who either have or currently are playing in Korea’s major league. However, MLB has done a great deal to develop youth baseball in the United States and abroad and would seem to be well placed to do so in Korea as well.
The challenges Korea faces in keeping talent at home, however, are not unique. Japanese professionals have long sought to play in the major leagues as it is the world’s elite professional baseball league. One of the biggest signings this winter was of Yu Darvish from Japan by the Texas Rangers. While formally joining the Rangers through the posting system, he would have been eligible to sign with a major league team prior to joining Japan’s major leagues.
The United States also faces this issue in respects to soccer. The premier professional leagues for soccer are in Europe, not the United States. Most of the best U.S. players end up playing in the English Premier League or the Italian Serie A. They are mostly encouraged to do so as the level of U.S. soccer on the international stage will only be enhanced by U.S. players playing regularly against the world’s best. This is true even for perennial soccer power Brazil, which also sees many of its most talented players suit up for European clubs. Interestingly, Major League Soccer has tried to draw in the best possible international talent rather than retain U.S. talent in trying to raise the level of play in the United States.
For anyone who has been to a baseball game in Korea, it would be hard to argue that there are any more passionate fans in the world for the sport. It seems clear that the Orioles violated the spirit of the rules when it comes to signing Kim Seong-min and that MLB and KBO should work together to try and clarify the procedures for MLB teams signing armature talent in Korea rather than prohibit it. However, Kim’s exposure to the best players in the world will likely only enhance his value to the Korean national team in future international competitions.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Dave Newman’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.