"You can't sit here!" was the instruction from a Hanwha Eagles employee who was keen to remove undesirables from the player entrance.
This was the exact moment that I pretty much gave up hope of being able to attract Hanwha players to work with the Team Jokbal charity. I feared that despite a previous diplomatic meeting with Wilin Rosario in Incheon 2 weeks earlier, I had failed on this part of the mission. I felt awful for precisely 10 seconds. These 10 seconds seemed like an eternity. I seemed to have had enough time to think about how to break the news to my Team Jokbal team mates and how to sincerely think about my apology to my good friends Andrew and Camille who had accompanied me on this mission. However, the whole world was about to change. Thankfully!
So what led to those crucial 10 seconds?
Before that moment, I had been at Hanbat Park patiently waiting for Wilin Rosario to show up and honor the promise he made to me in Incheon 2 weeks earlier. Wilin had long been stated as a priority target of Team Jokbal, partly out of respect for his talents and partly because we feel that his items will raise a lot of money at the charity auction. This was also my first meeting with my oldest friends in Korea for over 6 months. They had been at home. I had missed them awfully and I had rather hoped that our reunion had been at a nice restaurant while catching up over some beers. Not to be. Instead our reunion happened to be unreasonably early on a Saturday morning in a busy and humid parking lot filled with autograph hunters and short on places to sit down. Both Andrew and Camille will identify as Hanwha fans and I think that it is fair to say that Andrew is becoming very attached and passionate about his beloved Eagles, so they were quite keen for a chance to meet star hitter Rosario.
We waited and met some of the local fans who informed us that Wilin would arrive soon but don't hold up hope was the repeated message. The ardent fans and dedicated autograph hunters had no memories of Wilin signing anything for anyone. I assured them that I had spoken to him and had felt that he was a good man. Despite their stories, I retained hope. But time kept passing and it really started to feel that he may have slipped through our fingers. The one that got away. Then hope! A scooter appeared with the imposing figure of Rosario riding it. He immediately recognized me and called out to me. "Hey my man! I will see you in a little bit!" he cried out. The regulars started to believe that they might just be about to meet their hero. They started asking us if we could get him to sign things for them. We made no promises. Firstly, we were in no position to make promises. Secondly, having seen how intrusive Korean super fans can be, I can appreciate why players try to take avoiding measures. There are some messed up people out there and some interesting stories!
Anyway, hope is a dangerous thing! Now we knew he was there and seemingly willing to meet, we dared not go to the bathroom nor go to get lunch. We had had a few beers at this point and it is fair to say that for all of us a bathroom trip was desirable. We were all starving. Non of us had eaten breakfast. I felt embarrassed at what bad day I believed my friends may now be having. Camille thankfully volunteered to go to McDonalds to pick up lunch. That improved the mood. Andrew and I prowled multiple VIP and player entrances in the hope that Wilin would appear soon. Time kept ticking. I was feeling progressively worse.
Then came a point where we pretty much gave up. We got more beers and decided to sulk in the shade outside the VIP lounge and get on with our day. This is when the defining 10 seconds, the moment of truth was to come our way.
The Defining Moment
We were told that we could no longer sit where we were sulking. But suddenly Camille tried to explain what we were doing and it seemed to be getting some traction but it didn't raise my spirits as I had dealt with so many security personnel with a Hitler complexes and egos the size of the grand canyon. Out of the blue, a question was asked. The answer would shape the day and success would depend on it.
We were asked "Are you Rosario's friends?" While we didn't straight up lie, we did skirt the honest truth... a lot. Instead we offered a picture of me with Rosario and insisted that he agreed to me. We didn't lie but we knew that we were happy for the poor lady to make her own assumptions based on sketchy intel. To our mutual amazement she invited us to come in. Now we had to play it cool and make a new plan.
A Second Chance - The Player's Lounge
Now we were in the player's lounge. Us! 3 random people with plastic cups full of cheap beer. What should we do? Take our second chance!!!
We kept our composure as we watched lots of Hanwha heroes wonder past us in their underwear. We saw players flirting with kit ladies and groupies. We saw a lot of players eating apples and playing cellphone games. We had to resist any urge to get star struck or act impressed. We had to resist getting any balls or jerseys signed. We were drinking in what really felt like the last chance saloon... well VIP lounge.
Again we waited. And then another hero came forward. Arise Son Gwang Min, Hanwha 3rd baseman and friendly eccentric chap. Finally, a player came to talk to us, we no longer looked out of place. Son read our Korean Team Jokbal notice and decided to help. He signed balls and then tracked down the player interpreter for us. The interpreter in turn agreed to bring Rosario to us. Song got back to his cellphone games and became a keen observer of what happened next.
Finally a roar of "Hey! What's up my man?" boomed down the walkway from the locker room. It was the unmistakable presence of Wilin Rosario. After a brief chat, Wilin went back to the locker room and promised to return with the goods. He said it would be 5 minutes. It turned out to be a bit longer but we no longer cared. We all now wore ear to ear grins. I no longer felt that burden of shame but now a deep feeling of gratitude to Andrew and especially Camille for keeping the faith. That faith was rewarded as 3 fully kitted out players approached us with sack full of goods. Rosario had coerced his teammates Alexi Ogando and Carlos Villanueva to help. Although Carlos and Alexi seemed confused, Wilin got them in order. There was little time remaining for explanations as they were being ordered to fan a event. I guess it is hard to explain in Spanish that some British guy will give you some Korean pig feet for your shoes and it will help charity but Rosario managed to do it and for that Team Jokbal is forever grateful to our new recruit who went on to have a decent game after being introduced in the 6th inning due to recent injuries.
Team Jokbal is also grateful for the help, dedication, time and diplomatic work from Andrew and Camille Ignacio. You deserve to be at least honorary Jokbals from this day forward! Sorry, yet again, about all the waiting!
So finally, we have "The Hanwha Heroes Haul". We will try our best to get as much as we can to help the children!
As action heats up in the KBO with teams trying to maintain their leads or jump ahead of others before the end of the regular season, the action for Team Jokbal has also heated up and with it comes some more stories of kindness (and humor) on the part of players and teams. At the start of the year we had an idea in mind of what we wanted to do, but we never expected it to go as far as it has. The only way that it has gotten this far is from the kindness of players and teams.
Yesterday I woke up at 6 am and started my trip to Suwon kt Wiz park to catch up with the Wiz crew and Lotte Giants crew. While sitting and waiting on the Wiz guys (Donn Roach, Ryan Feierabend, and Mel Rojas Jr.) some great things started to happen. We were greeting players as they came by and getting the occasional smile from the other fans that were there waiting. Around 9 or 9:30 Donn was the first to appear and while chatting with him Ryan also came in. We stood and had a nice conversation about how everything had been going with collecting the items (both guys were already aware of everything and we had previously spoken with Donn). They both kindly said they would go inside and grab some things and bring them back out. A few minutes later they reappeared with some awesome stuff which included one of Donn's jerseys, his warmup, one of Ryan's hats, and Yoon Suk-min's kt Wiz travel bag.
We chatted a bit more and snapped a few pictures and they headed back inside. Shortly after, Yoo Han-joon came walking by and we stopped him to show him what we were doing and he kindly and in perfect English might I add said that he would go take a look and see if he had anything for us. I told him that we would just be sitting around just outside if he had anything to give.
Not long afterward another very kind young Korean guy comes out of the locker room with some items. This guy was James. I figured he was just being kind (which he is very kind) and telling me his English name to make me feel comfortable. I wasn't aware of who he was at the time, but since there are a lot of young players that I am unfamiliar with I thought he was one of them. He said he had been in the locker room with Donn and the other guys and there was some mention about what we were doing and he wanted to bring some things out for us. He brought our a couple of pairs of batting gloves and a t-shirt. We talked for a while and he was really happy to help out and happy to hear the story about what we were doing to help out kids at orphanages. His English was excellent, but I didn't really think much of it because I have run across more than a few Korean players that speak English really well, so once again I just thought he was one of the young Wiz players that I was unfamiliar with. I asked him to sign the things he brought out and we snapped a picture and he went back inside.
While waiting on Mel to come through, I took a bit of time to try to identify James based on his photo and his signature, but I wasn't having much luck. I wasn't too worried though because I knew that I would eventually identify him and before I knew it Mel had appeared and stopped off for a chat. He said that he would check is locker and get some stuff back out to us a bit later. After that we continued to hang around and wait just in case anyone else came back out with things.
Right around 11:30 we made our way over toward the Lotte bus arrival area to catch up with Josh Lindblom, but just before we got there all of the buses had parked and all of the players were inside. We back and grabbed the Wiz items that we had collected and took them over to put them in the car. On the way back through we were able to catch the attention of Josh on the field and he came over and said that he had the Lotte Giants helmet that we sent to him signed and in the dugout. We headed on inside the stadium to catch up with him and grab the helmet.
After getting inside, we headed over to Josh and he asked us to go over and meet him by the dugout to grab the helmet. However, that didn't quite work as planned since security stopped us and wouldn't let us down near the field. Even after Josh reappeared with the helmet and was trying to tell them to let us down to get it, they denied our entry. Not a cool move by them, but we have become used to the security run-ins and Josh asked us to just meet him over at the bullpen. We walked over and he passed us the helmet and we were having a bit of a chat when security tried to intervene once again. At that point we just ignored the security and told them that Josh knows us and he is helping us out. After all, it's kind of hard for security to tell a player that they can't talk with fans. We were able to express our gratitude to Josh and our happiness that he is back in the KBO with his daughter doing well. He is a great guy and he said he would try to round up some more things for us at a later date.
After all of that was settled our job for the day was mostly done and we took the helmet to the car and came back to watch the game. During the game, still puzzled over the mysterious James, who we thought may have been Jung Hyun (#7) or possibly the Wiz interpreter, we had a great time cheering along and telling stories. We were also sure to cheer on Jung Hyun (as James) every time he came to the plate.
After the game we headed out to catch Mel to grab the items from him and hopefully answer the question of "who is James?" After a bit of a wait we saw Donn come out and then Mel. Mel brought us out one of his hats and a warmup and was immediately surrounded by fans. He passed the items off to us and stood there signing for all of them. He's a really great guy and he loves and takes care of the fans. They also really love him.
Meanwhile I slipped over to Donn while he was also signing for a huge group of fans to get to the bottom of the James situation. I showed him the photo and he said James is their interpreter, to which us Jokballers had a big laugh because we were so confused about who he was.
At the end of the day, we had a great time and got some great items for the auction. The kindness of players (and interpreters) such as Donn, Mel, Ryan, James and Josh always inspires us to try harder for the kids. These guys are great and nothing that Team Jokbal is doing would be possible without their support. They have all been very kind and welcoming and we can't wait for the auction so that we can show how their donations have helped kids in South Korea. It's gonna be a great event and it's all possible because of you guys! Thanks for helping out!
A group of guys enjoying the KBO and raising money for orphanages.