"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!
A group of guys enjoying the KBO and raising money for orphanages.