By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 27 (Yonhap) -- After a forgettable playing career as a light-hitting shortstop, Yeom Kyung-yup is enjoying a memorable first season as the manager of the Nexen Heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).
For the second year, the Heroes have charged out to first place in the month of May. Through Sunday, the Heroes were 27-13, holding a half-game lead over the two-time defending champions, Samsung Lions.
Last season, the Heroes were in first place in late May but faded away badly in the second half. They ended up in sixth, two spots below the final playoff berth.
This year, the Heroes are back at the top in May, and in a sign of their remarkable consistency, the Heroes are the only KBO club that has yet to lose more than two games in a row this year.
Many believe they will be able to sustain their early momentum and reach the first postseason in the team's five-year history. Those believers point to Yeom as the key.
The Heroes' strong start has turned Yeom into a household name. And yet only hard-core baseball fans remember Yeom as a player, a .195 hitter who spent a better part of his career as a backup.
In an interview with Yonhap News Agency last Friday at Mokdong Stadium, the Heroes' home in western Seoul, Yeom spoke about how he has always wanted to be a better coach than he was as a player.
He sounded so detached when looking back on his career that it seemed as if he were discussing someone else's life.
"As a player, everything came so easy to me," Yeom said. "I didn't even try that hard, and I became a starting player. But I couldn't capitalize on that opportunity. I spent too much time partying, and my body just couldn't keep up with the demands of pro baseball."
A second round draft pick out of college, Yeom made his KBO debut with the Taepyungyang Dolphins, the previous incarnation of the Heroes, in 1991. The Dolphins later became the Hyundai Unicorns, and Yeom retired as a Unicorn in 2000.
He was a regular shortstop for the first few seasons. But in 1996, Park Jin-man, a highly touted shortstop prospect, joined the Unicorns out of high school and promptly replaced Yeom as the team's everyday shortstop.
Yeom said he was hurt by the changing of the guard, though he had no one to blame but himself. It also proved to be a turning point -- it was then that he started to think about baseball "in a different light," he said.
"I started studying baseball harder than before," he said. I had lost my opportunity as a player, but in my second career, I wanted to become a successful coach."
Yeom was relegated to mostly pinch-running duties in the latter part of his career, but those last several seasons helped mold him into a managerial type.
"To survive as a backup player, I began to always think about strategies when watching baseball," Yeom said. "I constantly thought about ways that could give our team an edge, something that could help us beat favored opponents."
It took Yeom more than a decade after the end of his playing career to become a manager. Before being named the Heroes' manager, Yeom spent some time in the front office of the Unicorns and later the LG Twins, and had also served as a coach and a scout for both clubs -- all the while obsessively writing down his thoughts on baseball strategies.
"I've been taking notes since I started working in the front office," Yeom said. "I wanted to give coaches information that I felt would help our team win. Then when I became a coach, my specialty was in defense and base running. So I focused on these two areas as far as trying to help my team."
Yeom is said to have enough material for a book on baseball strategies. He said, however, that he didn't start taking notes just so he could one day become a manager.
Yeom was the Heroes' third-base coach in 2012 and said he was surprised when he was offered to manage the Heroes because the KBO head posts had mostly been the domain of former All-Stars.
Yeom is easily the least glamorous manager in the league today. The list of current managers reads like an All-KBO Team from the 1980s and 1990s.
The Kia Tigers' Sun Dong-yol is widely considered the greatest KBO pitcher ever, with a career ERA of 1.20 in 1,647 innings and three MVP awards. Ryu Joong-il, who has managed the Samsung Lions to the KBO championship in the past two seasons, was one of the premier defensive shortstops in the 1980s. Lee Man-soo, the manager for the SK Wyverns, the KBO runner-up the last two seasons, is a former MVP and the first KBO player to win the batting Triple Crown.
Calling himself "a very lucky person," Yeom said he wants to help change the hiring trend in the KBO.
"I'd like to see more opportunities presented to people like myself," he said. "I hope that I can post good records and that will open doors for more people."
Despite missing the playoffs last year, the Heroes still produced the league MVP, first baseman Park Byung-ho, and the Rookie of the Year, second baseman Seo Geon-chang. Their No. 1 starter, Brandon Knight, led the KBO in ERA and innings pitched and was second in wins. Park and shortstop Kang Jung-ho both enjoyed "20-20" seasons with at least 20 homers and 20 steals each.
The team's obvious athleticism and natural talent were largely negated by their lack of depth, with backups unable to pick up the slack when starters came down with injuries.
This year, the star players are doing their part again, with Park and Kang continuing to put up strong offensive numbers. Knight and Andy Van Hekken, the team's two American starters who combined for 27 wins last season, have won 10 games together so far in 2013.
On top of that, the performances of less-heralded players have driven the Heroes to the top.
Kim Min-sung, usually the team's No. 9 hitter, leads the KBO with a .467 batting average with runners in scoring position. Two reserve players, outfielder Oh Yoon and infielder Kim Min-woo, are batting .478 and .325, respectively, in their limited opportunities.
Yeom said his biggest task this year has been to make sure every player, from starters to backups, understands his role. And as a former backup, Yeom said he has been able to build a strong bond with his reserves.
"Everyone obviously wants to start, and I've talked to our backups and tried to get them to understand why every team needs a strong bench," Yeom said. "I was a backup player myself, and I understand that reserves' sacrifice is really important to any team. I am grateful that they've responded well."
Yeom said he also tries to preach the importance of "thinking," whether it's to be a star or a fringe player.
"You have to constantly think, whether you're playing or practicing," he said. "If you only go through the motion of hitting, catching and running, then (baseball) becomes just amateurish."
Yeom said he hopes his players won't make the same mistake that he did as a player.
"I still have regrets about my playing career," Yeom said. "I tell my players sometimes, 'Be careful or you're going to end up like me.'"
Given his early success as a manager, though, many players, especially little-known ones, will want to end up like Yeom. He offered some advice for such players.
"(Players) shouldn't watch baseball from a fan's perspective," he said. "You can't just say someone is a good hitter or someone just threw a good pitch. You have to keep asking why. Why is that player a good hitter? Why does that manager go with a particular strategy in that play? If you keep asking, then you will find your answers."
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