Foreign Players in KBO — A History Lesson
mykbo.net recently linked to a Korea Times article written a member of SABR’s Korea chapter that I thought was very interesting. It’s about 1998, the season when foreign players (players from the Americas) began playing in South Korea’s KBO.
The KBO from its inception in 1982 through 1997 had not allowed foreign players with the exception of ethnic Koreans born in other countries. A big part of the reason for this was the fact that KBO finances were weak and foreign players were expensive.
The decision to bring in foreign players (which Koreans often refer to using a word that translates as “mercenaries”) was largely an economic decision. In the mid-1990’s interest in KBO began to lag, with attendance falling for the first time, as South Koreans became more interested in soccer, particularly with South Korea having been awarded the co-host with Japan of the 2002 World Cup.
Also, Chan-ho Park’s arrival in MLB directed South Korean baseball fans’ attention away from KBO, and the KBO’s Haitai Tigers’ had sold two of the league’s biggest stars Dong-yeol Sun and Jong-bum Lee to Japan’s Chunichi Dragons because of financial problems. [Baseball Reference should be called to task for having Lee’s stats under the name “Jon Baum Lee.”]
KBO thus hoped that bringing in foreign players would goose attendance, but after the decision to bring in foreigners had been made, the 1998 Asian financial crisis hit, causing a lot of resentment and concern that high-priced foreign players were being brought it at big expense and at the cost of jobs for Korean baseball players. Seven of the eight KBO teams ultimately signed 12 foreign players, most notably Tyrone Woods and Scott Coolbaugh.
The initial class of foreign players included eight position players and four pitchers. The pitchers all had success in KBO that first season, but only about half of the position players did. Since then, pitchers have gradually dominated the ranks of foreign players until this year, when teams were allowed to sign three foreign players instead of two for the first time, one of whom had to be a position player.
Scott Coolbaugh led the Hyundai Unicorns to a Korean Series title, hitting a home run in the deciding game six. Tyrone Woods set a new KBO home record (since broken) with 42 dingers and won the league’s MVP Award. That was enough to convince the team owners of the value of foreign players, and they have played in KBO ever since.