By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 12 (Yonhap) -- When the World Baseball Classic (WBC) rolls around in March, South Korea will have the luxury of deploying two superb, Gold Glove-caliber defenders up the middle.
At shortstop will be Kim Ha-seong of the San Diego Padres, a Gold Glove finalist at the position in the National League (NL) last year. To his left will be the 2021 NL Gold Glove winner at second base, Tommy Edman of the St. Louis Cardinals.
For the first time in its WBC history, South Korea has taken advantage of the tournament's loose regulations on eligibility. Players can represent the country of birth for either of their parents, even if the players themselves aren't citizens of that country. Edman, born in the United States to an American father and a Korean mother, is the first half-Korean to represent South Korea at an international baseball tournament.
In a phone interview with Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday from San Diego, exactly a week after South Korea's 30-man roster was announced, Edman said he was looking forward to forming a formidable double play combo with Kim.
"He's a really great player, really good on defense, and I'm excited to play up the middle with him," Edman said of his future South Korean teammate. "It's going to be fun turning some double plays, and I'm sure we'll have one of the best defensive middle infields in the tournament."
Edman, a Gold Glove finalist for both second base and the newly-created utility player position in 2022, said he found out last summer he could have a chance to play for South Korea.
Around that time, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), which operates the national team at professional competitions, said it was open to selecting players of Korean descent born outside the country for the WBC. KBO sent national team officials to the U.S. to meet with eligible players, including Edman, in September.
About a month and a half later, Edman, whose mother still has a Korean passport, was told he'd be on the South Korean team. Manager Lee Kang-chul unveiled his 30-man squad on Jan. 4. Lee chose several groundball pitchers, and will look to Edman and Kim to gobble up worm killers left and right.
Edman, 27, said his family was just as happy as he was with the opportunity.
"This is an opportunity to represent my Korean heritage that I haven't had the chance to do in the past," Edman said. "I'm very excited to represent the country of Korea, and especially excited to play with my Korean teammates and meet a few great baseball players who I will hopefully see playing in the major leagues."
Edman isn't just a defensive specialist. He has stolen an NL-best 62 bases over the past two years. The switch hitter set career highs with 13 home runs and 95 runs scored last year, while posting a .725 on-base plus slugging (OPS), up 30 points from 2021.
"Being a switch hitter, I think I put together very consistent at-bats. Hopefully, I'll get on base a lot for the guys in the middle of the lineup," Edman said. "And I steal a lot of bases as well. So hopefully, I'll cause some excitement on the bases and score a lot of runs for the Korean team."
What he does lack at the moment are his Korean language skills. He said he has been using a language learning app to pick up basic Korean phrases, especially ones related to baseball.
Edman admitted his Korean "is not very good" but it is "improving." Once he joins the national team, Edman will be able to lean on his former Cardinals teammate, pitcher Kim Kwang-hyun, for some language help.
Edman said Kim, who spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons with the Cardinals before U-turning to the KBO, was "such a great teammate, very funny and very energetic."
"He just seemed to be happy every time he was at the field and excited to get the chance to pitch," Edman said of the 34-year-old left-hander nicknamed "KK." "I think it will be fun to see him playing with all his Korean teammates, where it seems like he'll be one of the leaders on the Korean team. I tried speaking a little bit of Korean with KK when he was with the team, so hopefully, we can resume that. And he can teach me a few Korean words and help me get acclimated to the rest of the team."
In the opening round, South Korea will play in Pool B against Japan, Australia, China and the Czech Republic. The top two teams from the group will reach the quarterfinals. Pool B countries will play all of their games at Tokyo Dome in the Japanese capital.
When told of hitter-friendly conditions of Tokyo Dome, Edman said: "Nice. It'll be cool. Hopefully, I will hit a couple of homers."
The marquee matchup will be the one against Japan, given the two countries' longstanding sporting rivalry. Edman may not have the same level of understanding of that competition as his Korean-born teammates. He is no stranger to bitter rivalries, though, with the battles between his Cardinals and their NL Central rivals Chicago Cubs dating back decades.
"I'm sure I will get a much better idea of it when I experience that when we actually play against them," Edman said of facing Japan. "It's fun to be a part of an intense rivalry like that. The games that we play against the Cubs are always very intense and very high energy. And I imagine it'll probably be the same in the games of Korea versus Japan, if not more."
Adding a fun element to that rivalry for Edman is having a Cardinals teammate, Lars Nootbaar, on the Japanese team. Edman said he and Nootbaar, who has a Japanese mother, had already talked about the possibility of facing each other at the WBC.
"Hopefully, I'll have some bragging rights if we beat them. That way, I'll be able to hold it over him for the season," Edman said. "It's going to be fun to get to play against each other, because we're good friends as well. So I'm excited to get that chance."
Edman has some memories of watching South Korea battle Japan in the 2009 WBC final before coming up short in extra innings. That was also the last time South Korea made it out of the first round, as the proud baseball country suffered disappointing early exits in both 2013 and 2017.
South Korean players and coaches have already spoken about their sense of urgency at this year's WBC, saying they must do well to restore respectability and regain fans' faith in the national team.
As one of three major leaguers for South Korea, with Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Choi Ji-man being the third, Edman will be counted on for significant contributions on both sides of the ball. But Edman isn't putting added pressure on himself.
"I really hope that I can be one of the players that puts the team over the edge and helps us get back to those championship rounds," he said. "And I wouldn't say necessarily I feel pressure. I'm just more excited to play with the team and to represent the country."
Edman added the key will be to calm those butterflies in his stomach early.
"I'm sure there'll be a little bit of nerves in those first few games as I go on to play to represent an entire country. But I think it'll become easy once it just gets back to playing baseball again," he said. "And I think that's the most important thing: just to remember that it's going to be like any game of baseball and not try to let the situation become too big."
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