Love of baseball breaks language barriers

Jong-yeol Lee, a retired Korean major league
baseball player, in a dugout at Carter Park. (Photos: Enoch

Jong-yeol Lee played professional baseball for 18 seasons in South Korea before
retiring after the 2009 season.
Now, Lee – who has Americanized his first name to James – is attempting to learn the
United States’ version of the game.
He spent the summer coaching with Greenline, a team of 9- and 10-year-olds in the
Bowling Green Pee Wee League.
Lee played 18 seasons with the LG Twins in the Korean Baseball Organization.
He moved to Bowling Green in February with the help of Sungho Cho, an assistant
professor in sport management at Bowling Green State University.
Lee was attending a baseball academy in Seoul that trains coaches. One of Cho’s best
friends is the director of the academy.
Cho, who also is from South Korea, was visiting his native country and asked James if
he’d like to move to the U.S. He accepted the offer.
The Twins are South Korea’s version of the New York Yankees, a successful
organization with a big payroll, Cho said.
"He came here to learn English most of all because he thought it would be a
wonderful idea to learn about real American baseball," Lee said through
Cho, his translator since he’s still learning English.
One of the reasons Lee came to BG was because of his friendship with Cho.
The 39-year-old Lee eventually hopes to become a coach in pro baseball, either in the
U.S. or South Korea.
"If he decides to go to minor league position, it could be easily done, but he
wanted to learn the grass root culture of baseball first," Cho said.
Cho compared Lee, who played second base and third base, to Yankee star Derek Jeter.
He said Lee is well-known in his home country and would be a candidate for his
sport’s hall of fame if one existed.
Lee said many exchange programs exist between Major League Baseball and Korean
baseball teams. The Twins held spring training several times at major league
facilities in Vero Beach, Fla., and Tampa, Fla.
He was a player-manager during his final season with the Twins in 2009. His tenure
with the Twins is one of the longest in Korean history.
"He didn’t learn about America then, not too much. He liked what he saw because
it was all about baseball," Lee said through Cho.
Two months after moving to BG, Lee was joined here by his wife, Sophie; 10-year-old
son, Louis; and 9-year-old daughter Helen.
Lee eventually signed his children up for the Pee Wee League and became a member of
the Greenline coaching staff.
"The language was never an issue," said Steve Kampf, who helped coach
Greenline. "We loved having him. He was quiet at first and some of that was
because he didn’t want to step on any toes, but he really fit in well. He had a
lot of knowledge."

Jong-yeol Lee, a retired Korean major league
baseball player, pitches a whiffle ball to Nick Powers, 8, at Carter

"He was able to teach the kids because he could show them what to do," said
Eddie Powers, another one of Greenline’s coaches. "For example with the
hitting, he would grab a bat and exaggerate what the kids were doing wrong. He
then would show them the correct technique. The kids got it quickly and there
was a connection between James and the kids very quickly. He just wanted to help
them reach their potential."
Lee had a six-month course in English before coming to BG, but is still learning the
language. Kampf even had an application on his cell phone that turned English
into Korean, but Lee wouldn’t allow him to use it.
"Sometimes I understand. Sometimes I don’t. I am learning," Lee said
through Cho.
Lee enjoyed the camaraderie of the team and the league.
"The games were fierce, but you remain friends with everyone in league,"
Lee said through Cho. "After a few moments, this is true baseball and I
realize this is what he wanted to learn."
Lee said youth sports are much more competitive in South Korea where children aren’t
allowed to compete until grade four and they’re limited to one sport. Only 10
percent of children in South Korea participate in sports, Lee said. He added
most youngsters are trained for their professional job/career when they are
"Sports are full-time commitment. You play for a career," Lee told Cho.
"If you don’t play a sport, you study. They are more competitive (in Korea)
because of lack of grass roots systems like Pee Wee baseball. They are all
varsity-type sports. The rest of kids train for careers, doctor, lawyer,
whatever it be."
If he returns to Seoul some day, he hopes to start a youth baseball system like the
Pee Wee League.
Lee isn’t sure what his next move will be, but he and family are enjoying living in
"Coaching Greenline was great," said Lee, who is planning on helping the
team again next summer.
"I like American culture, the people here very friendly." Lee said through
Cho. "He and his family worried about their settlement in BG because this
was a foreign country far away from home. But ever since they found some friends
here, it has been wonderful. His wife said we need to buy a home here."

No posts to display