By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, April 14 (Yonhap) -- His family name translates to "an old man" in German. He is not one himself yet, but there is something endearingly old school about the mindset of Aaron Altherr, the 29-year-old outfielder for the NC Dinos preparing for his first season in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).
In a recent phone interview with Yonhap News Agency, Altherr, born in Germany to a German father and an American mother, talked about not putting pressure on himself and controlling what he can control. They are among the well-worn cliches in sports, and Altherr, a veteran of 359 big league games, has them down pat.
But Altherr was not just throwing these words around aimlessly. The ability to shrug off pressure and stay focused without worrying about external factors will definitely come in handy as Altherr tries to navigate what has already been a strange first year in South Korea.
Altherr, the first German-born player in the KBO, would have been playing in the regular season by now, but the coronavirus outbreak forced the KBO to wipe out its preseason and delay the start of the regular season. It was originally set for March 28.
Since the end of their spring training in Arizona in early March, the Dinos have been stuck in their home city of Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Teams are only allowed to play intrasquad games at their home stadiums, and they cannot host or travel to face other clubs. Altherr, alternating between scrimmages and practices for weeks, has been "a little bit of a grind."
"It's definitely different because we've never experienced anything like this before," Altherr said. "It's definitely thrown a lot of guys off their routine. Right now, all I can control is working hard every day and staying ready."
The Dinos led the KBO with 128 home runs and a .416 slugging percentage in 2019, and ranked in the top three in categories such as batting average, runs scored, hits, doubles, and on-base plus slugging (OPS).
They did all that damage despite getting subpar production from their one foreign hitter spot. Christian Bethancourt homered on Opening Day -- he was the very first KBO player to go deep in 2019 -- but it went downhill from there. After batting .246 in 53 games with eight home runs, Bethancourt was replaced by Jake Smolinski, who hit just .229 while contributing nine homers and 42 RBIs in 55 games.
That Bethancourt homered on the first day of the season and got waived in July illustrates how quickly things can turn sour for import players. In this "what have you done for me lately" world, they are expected to hit the ground running from the start and to maintain full speed through the finish line.
The Dinos are now on to their fourth foreign hitter in three seasons, and are hoping Altherr will stick around longer than his recent predecessors.
"I know what I can do. I know I can help this team win a lot of games, both offensively and defensively," Altherr said. "I don't put any extra pressure on myself. I am just going to focus on doing what I can do and control what I can control."
He enjoyed his best big league season in 2017 with the Philadelphia Phillies, batting .272/.340/.516 in 107 games, along with 19 home runs and 65 RBIs. But he never matched that level of production in the majors again. He bounced between three clubs in 2019, beginning the year with the Phillies, having just one at-bat with the San Francisco Giants, and then ending it with the New York Mets. He batted only 5-for-61 in 49 games.
He fared much better in 28 games in Triple-A, with a .270/.375/.527 line, plus four home runs and 13 RBIs, but Altherr still was not satisfied with himself. He said he decided to take his talent to Asia in pursuit of regular playing time.
"I thought (coming to the KBO) was the best opportunity for me to be able to get on a team and play every day," he said. "If I'd stayed in the U.S., I'd probably be on a minor league deal and who knows what would happen with that? It was an easy decision for me to know that I'll be playing all the time (in the KBO). The last couple of years haven't been very good for me, and (playing in the KBO) is just a way for me to get back on my feet and show teams what I can do."
Though he is playing in Asia for the first time, Altherr is already well-traveled. His father, Frank, played for the Bundesliga football club 1. FC Kaiserslautern -- they won the league championship in 1991, the year Aaron was born -- and his mother, Michelle, was stationed in Germany for the U.S. Air Force. As military families often do, the Altherrs moved quite a bit. The future major leaguer spent time in Kansas City and the Phoenix area, among other places.
Altherr said he played a bit of his dad's old sport at 5 or 6, at an age when he said every kid plays it. He never developed much of an interest in it, and grew up playing baseball, basketball and American football.
The 196-centimeter athlete drew Division I interest in basketball but ended up signing with the Phillies after they selected him in the ninth round of the 2009 draft.
Altherr's baseball journey took him through states of Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Florida, not to mention his three big league stops. He has also played winter ball in Venezuela.
Altherr said his transition to South Korea has not been too difficult, once he started to feel comfortable after a couple of weeks.
Perhaps bigger adjustments will come on the field, where Altherr will be facing KBO pitchers for the first time. While doing some pre-scouting on KBO hurlers, Kia Tigers' ace Yang Hyeon-jong caught his eye.
Yang is the 2017 league MVP and the reigning ERA champion.
"He seems like he hits his spot pretty well," Altherr said. "I've heard from a lot of guys on the team that he has good stuff and that he's one of the top pitchers in the KBO now. I am definitely looking forward to facing him and seeing what he's got. It's one thing to look at the video, but it's a lot different when you actually go into the batter's box and see it for yourself."
There's one other thing Altherr is looking forward to: playing before fans in the stands.
"I've heard they get really loud and really into it," he said. "Hopefully, we can play in front of our fans later on."
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