SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In the beginning, when he’d set his mind on leaving home and crossing the ocean to try this, Jae-gyun Hwang believed he would have to be stronger. He believed he would have to prepare himself for a game that revered power, both in its pitchers and hitters.
His friends, countrymen Hyun-jin Ryu and Jung Ho Kang, would call or text about the obstacles here. The size of the shoulders on these guys, the heft in their bats, the hiss on their fastballs. Hwang reported to the weight room. He searched the American game for hitters whose bodies seemed to match his, and he studied their swings from the ground up, and this is how for a season in the Korean Baseball Organization his batter’s box mechanics inclined toward Jose Bautista. Or Hanley Ramirez.
“I had my hands right next to my head, high up,” he said through a translator, stacking his hands by his forehead and fingering an imaginary bat.
The leg kick, too.
“But I also realized soon enough by doing that in the states I wouldn’t be able to make great contact with the fast pitches that come inward, that cut right at the plate,” he said, “so I switched it once again to make it more simplified.”
When it came time to leave Korea, to test himself here, Hwang had increased his home runs over a season from 12 to 26. His strikeouts fell from 122 to 64. At 29 years old, he signed with the San Francisco Giants in January for $1.5 million and a chance to be their third baseman, the journey not just getting started but begun when he chose to remake himself as a ballplayer, a journey that in miles approached that of one of his bat flips.
Oh, the bat flips. The glorious, arcing, wind-milling bat flips. They beat him here by a couple seasons. The one it seemed everyone saw – and replayed countlessly – showed a baseball screaming toward the left field foul pole, Hwang gazing thoughtfully after it from the batter’s box, the bat held at shoulder’s height in his left hand, his right hand held ceremoniously at his heart.
The ball would be long enough and right enough, Hwang finally determined, at which point he hoisted the bat straight up. He glanced at the bat’s trajectory, then jogged out from beneath its flight. The only question was whether Hwang might circle the bases before the landing.
Funny how a guy can play 1,200 professional baseball games, accumulate more than 4,000 at-bats and launch more than 100 home runs, only to learn he is internationally known for a moment of extreme — and common — mirth.
He sat Friday morning at his locker at Scottsdale Stadium. The Giants have liked him so far. He’s hit a couple home runs, played more than reasonable defense at third and shown an above average and accurate arm. He’s volunteered to play second base and left field, as well. Hunter Pence called him, “Amazing,” in that way Pence is prone to honesty and also appreciative of a fellow ballplayer’s path. Hwang grinned at a mention of his flung bat, which he’d already promised to temper should home runs come, should they be in the big leagues.
“I was really surprised by how big of an impact my previous bat flips had on people here over in the states, and how viral it went on YouTube,” Hwang said. “It’s something I didn’t expect. But I’m appreciative of the fact it’s at least gotten my name out there and people at least know who I am because of that.”
His bat flips brought no recourse, he said. The baseball culture in Korea tends not to tamp the moment.
“Not at all,” he said. “Even if you throw it as high as you can, it’s OK.
“The mindset in Korea is, even if you’re a pitcher and you strike out someone in a big situation you can be as emotional as possible and show that. At the same time if you’re a batter, if you hit the ball really well in a crucial situation, it’s something you did well, it’s totally up to you to do. If you want to celebrate, it’s totally fine.”
Oh, the bat flips. The blissful bat flips.
“I think something I naturally feel attracted to,” he said, “is playing baseball in front of a crowd. I like the fact there are spectators coming to watch something fun. The fact I can provide some sort of excitement through my performance, especially when I’m doing well. That’s something that I feel like is also carrying on to me, to me feeling happy and joyful on the field.
“It’s not something I really think of during the game. It’s just a part of the game and something that comes pretty naturally to me. So when I hit a home run the next thing that makes sense is to just do it.”
Hwang shrugged and smiled, wholly likeable. Resolutely humble. Eager for what’s next. Still marveling at the flight.
“The biggest thing that stands out and is also exciting is the fact all the players I used to see on TV, I’m in the clubhouse with them, I’m on the field with them,” he said. “I talk with them, communicate with and engage them. It’s just a real dream come true. I’m very blessed and appreciative every day to be here and play and compete. I’m looking forward to continuing to do that.”
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