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(Yonhap Interview) Questions asked out of curiosity help American pitcher adjust to S. Korean league

All Headlines 15:06 March 24, 2018

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 24 (Yonhap) -- Foreign baseball players in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) often say the baseball world can be small. They end up facing their former U.S. minor league teammates or even find themselves on the same KBO club in some cases.

Before new overseas players join the league here, they often seek advice or tips from other foreign players who've been here before. But Jason Wheeler, a first-year pitcher for the Hanwha Eagles, got his information from an unlikely source -- an interpreter for Wheeler's South Korean teammate in the minors.

This file photo provided by the Hanwha Eagles baseball club shows starter Jason Wheeler (R) throws a pitch against the Nexen Heroes in a Korea Baseball Organization preseason game at Hanwha Life Eagle Park in Daejeon, 160 kilometers south of Seoul, on March 14, 2018. (Yonhap)

Wheeler played with Park Byung-ho in Triple-A Rochester in the Minnesota Twins system in 2016 and 2017. And during their time there, Wheeler spoke often with Park's interpreter, Kim Jeong-deok, about the KBO. Because he had also been an interpreter for foreign players for two KBO clubs, LG Twins and NC Dinos, Kim made for a pretty good source of information for foreigners who could go on to play in the KBO -- even though Wheeler himself never actually thought back then that he would end up here.

"At that point in time when I was asking about it, I was just interested in how a different country and a different culture works with baseball," Wheeler told Yonhap News Agency Saturday at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, where his Eagles were to play the home team, Nexen Heroes, in the season opener.

"I had no idea I was going to be in that same situation a couple of years later," Wheeler added. "I am glad I asked those questions because now I am here and I know a little bit more."

In the exhibition season, the 198-centimeter left-hander pitched like a KBO veteran. He held opponents to one run over 7 2/3 innings in two starts, while striking out four and walking two.

And just as those early performances on the mound showed, Wheeler said his transition has been "smooth."

This Getty Images file photo taken on May 30, 2017 shows Jason Wheeler, then of the Minnesota Twins, throwing a pitch against the Houston Astros in his first major league game at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Wheeler is currently with the Hanwha Eagles in the Korea Baseball Organization. (Yonhap)

"When you're on the field, you're just playing baseball," he said. "As a pitcher, my job is to go out there and compete. It doesn't matter what country I am in."

Wheeler, 27, has appeared in just two major league games in his career, both with the Twins in 2017. He is part of a growing contingent of foreign players who sign with KBO clubs in their prime. With larger budgets for foreign imports, no longer do KBO teams chase washed-up veterans who play out the string in South Korea.

In recent years, former KBO players like Eric Thames and Anthony Swarzak have made successful transitions back to the majors. Wheeler said returning to America "is obviously an option" but his focus remains on helping his current team.

"I wouldn't say I am here thinking, 'Oh, I need to come here and get better just so I can go back to the U.S.'" he said. "I want to play this out and want to see how it goes, and maybe I'll be here in Korea for a few years."

Wheeler and fellow pitcher Keyvius Sampson are both new additions to the Eagles. They're joining a club that hasn't been to the postseason since 2007, and Wheeler and Sampson, as the top two starters, will be counted on to help lead the Eagles back to the playoffs.

Wheeler said he is trying not to let outside pressure get to him.

"I put enough pressure on myself. I expect a lot from myself. I don't need outside influence," he said. "Every time I step on the mound, I want my team to have a chance to win."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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