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Phenom Has Sights Set on Stardom

Posted July. 15, 2006 06:22,   


9. Phenom Has Sights Set on Stardom

On July 12, the skies above the road from Seoul to Masan, South Gyeongsang, where rain clouds drifted, were full of surprises. Torrential rains would rage, but after passing Daegu, light shone through the clouds, and yet it became cloudy once again in Masan.

It reminded me of Hanhwa player Ryu Hyun-jin (pictured), a 19 year old who has had his share of typhoons and sunshine in his short life. He had come to Masan for a road game against Lotte. An Incheon native, the typhoon that he faced as a student attending Dongsan High School was powerful enough to captivate the entire mind of an adolescent boy. Dongsan High School baseball team manager Choi Young-hwan reminisced, “That typhoon made Ryu Hyun-jin strong.”

Known as “Poker Face” for Overcoming a Serious Injury in his First Year of High School—

Ryu is said to have played with a baseball glove since he was a toddler, and surprised Changyoung Elementary School manager Lim Woo-il when he showed off his talents while trying out for the baseball team. Ryu had already mastered his basics before even becoming a player thanks to his baseball enthusiast father, Ryu Jae-chun, 50.

He was already taller than 170 cm while attending Dongsan Middle School, and in 2003, his first year in high school, his fastball reached speeds of up to 137 kilometers per hour. At the Michuhol High School Pennant held in September of the same year, he took charge of Dongsan High School pitching and led his team a second place finish. His baseball career had no obstacles.

However, after the pennant was over, pain came to his left elbow. The dark clouds had arrived. He underwent therapy for six months, but there was no progress the following year, either. A famous orthopedist in Seoul found a bone chip in his elbow. After undergoing surgery in April 2004, he got seven months of injury rehabilitation training. Every morning, he rode a bus not to school but to the hospital. It took five hours to shuttle between his home in Incheon to the hospital in Songpa-gu, Seoul. He left at dawn and returned late at night. His second year in high school passed without having a chance to grab a ball.

Ryu is known for his poker face. His face does not show emotions. In order to face off batters, a pitcher needs such character, but it is amazing to have such a poker face at the age of 19. When I looked at his face in his quarters in Masan, his big round face lacked emotions but was full of childish mischief.

“It was difficult on the inside, wasn’t it?”


“What were you thinking about on the bus to the hospital?”

“I was just thinking that I need to finish rehab quickly and play baseball with my friends.”

“You only had that thought?”

“Yeah, oh, I also slept (laughed).”

After long and painful rehabilitation, Ryu finally started pitching at training camp in Gunsan, Jeonbuk Province, in February 2005. Despite the one year gap, he pitched for an inning and his ball speed reached up to 142 kilometers an hour. Even he didn’t know why the ball had become faster, but it might be a result of his efforts. His mother, Park Seung-sun, 47, said, “Hyun-jin did not skip a single day of the difficult five to six hour rehabilitation session, and as if that weren’t enough, he would climb the stairs to his home on the 11th floor.”

After returning from seemingly hell, Ryu’s path has been smooth. That same year, he was critical in his team’s winning of the Blue Dragon High School Pennant. Nevertheless, his injury record set him back at the draft. Both SK, who had the rights to him, and Lotte, who could sign him on if SK didn’t, turned away from him.

“I didn’t feel good for exactly one day and then just forgot about it. I was sure that there would be a team that would draft me.”

Aiming for 18 Wins, Possible Candidate for Triple Crown—

The optimism of Ryu is quite world class. He is also known as a “lucky charm” to his team, Hanhwa. It is not impossible for him to achieve the triple crown of most wins, lowest ERA and most strikeouts, for the first time since Samsung manager Sun Dong-yeol. As a matter of fact, at this moment, Ryu is continuing to improve. Recently, he learned to throw changeups and sliders from teammate Koo Dae-sung.

“This year’s goal is to reach 18 wins. I want to be the best pitcher in Korea.”

For the time being, let’s withhold our curiosity about his future. Since Ryu, who is now called “teddy bear,” seems to be very happy just with the fact of having friends to play baseball with.

Sung-Kyu Kim kimsk@donga.com