Mookie Betts: 'Kang Baek-ho, Lee Jung-hoo have potential to make it to MLB'

Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox reacts after scoring a fifth inning run against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game One of the 2018 World Series at Fenway Park on Oct. 23, 2018 in Boston, MA. / AFP-Yonhap

Mookie Betts compares baseball culture in Korea, US

By Jhoo Dong-chan, Lee Min-young

Major League Baseball superstar Mookie Betts uploaded a video clip on YouTube about the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) games and its players on May 5 shortly before the league kicked off without fans for the coronavirus pandemic.

In the video, he introduced the KBO's top talents and their skills. It immediately went viral. His video excited Korean baseball fans. One fan wrote that a Major League superstar promoting Korean baseball was something he had never imagined experiencing in his life.

Betts said he started watching the KBO games as they were the only ones fans can watch at the moment, and found some entertaining features, including each KBO hitter's iconic bat flip.

The bat flip is part of Korean baseball style. A batter does it to celebrate after smashing in a home run. Fans and other players don't find it intrusive but the bat flip is considered rude and disrespectful to pitchers in the U.S. and Canada.

Betts named some talented KBO players he believes have the potential to make it in the MLB.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Oct. 7, 1992, Betts showed athletic talent in various sports, including basketball and bowling, when he was young. U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris is also known to be a huge fan of Betts since both of them are from the state of Tennessee.

Immediately after Betts posted his promotional video on YouTube earlier this month, Harris was said to have expressed an interest in knowing about Betts' experience with Korean food, the fans in both Boston and Los Angeles and what is it like to play in the two cities.

In 2018, Betts became the first MLB player to win the Most Valuable Player, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, batting title, and World Series in the same season.

LA Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, right, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times reporter Lee Min-young via conference call, May 20. / Korea Times file

The following is an excerpt from The Korea Times interview with Mookie Betts, with help from AMCHAM Chairman and CEO James Kim.

Q: Before we get into the interview session, could you please say hi to our Korean baseball fans?

A: (Said in Korean) Annyeonghaseyo!

Q: Thank you so much. Let's start off with talking a bit about your life during this COVID-19 pandemic. So what are you up to these days amid the coronavirus outbreak and how are you preparing yourself for the upcoming MLB season?

A: I have just been enjoying myself, being around with family a lot with my little daughter. She's one, turning two in November so just spending time with her. I have been working out, not a whole lot of baseball activity. I've been hitting some, but more just of enjoying my time at home. Because I know when the season starts, it's going to be every day, but yes I am kind of getting ready. As time gets closer, it seems like I'm hitting a little more, doing a couple more things but definitely trying to take each and every day to enjoy my time at home.

Q: I'll have to ask some questions about the KBO video you uploaded on your social media. I loved the video and it was so unexpected. What made you shoot this video? Since when have you been interested in Korean baseball?

A: As things were kind of going on I just watched how Korea handled the whole situation. I think you guys did an amazing job with opening everything back up, kind of getting through it, then opening everything back up. And so I knew obviously baseball was going to kind of open up I was just excited to see it. So that's kind of what sparked the idea and I talked to my agent who said: "You know let's make a video to reach out and get the star players, get their names known globally." That's something that was kind of on my mind so that was kind of the spark.

Q: Are you familiar with Korean players? Or are there any particular teams or players you're rooting for?

A: Instead of rooting for anybody there are some guys that I enjoy watching. I definitely don't have a team that I like watching per se but I know Lee Jung-hoo and Kang Baek-ho. They have been the guys that I have been watching the most. I think they have some potential in coming over to the U.S. one day. We'll see how it goes.

Q: So, one thing I found really surprising was your Korean pronunciation when you were naming some of the Korean players in your video. Did you practice a lot for that video?

A: I had a great teacher. Obviously it took a lot of practice trying to fix my mouth to say things, to make the different movements and what not. But Rebecca (Korean teacher) did an amazing job with breaking it down for me and helping me pronounce all the names. Really she did most of it but I had a great team around waiting to help.

Q: Was it very difficult to pronounce those names?

A: A few. A few were tough but I took it on as a challenge. I need some competition right now, so it seems like that's what I used to get my competition fix.

Q: Watching the KBO season start, how did you feel about live baseball games without fans?

A: Obviously, fans are super important with sports in general, but I think it's just exciting to be back out and play baseball especially for us, so I think, it is kind of weird, but on the other side I'm just happy to see baseball being played. I'm excited hopefully to play soon.

Q: And now let's talk more about Korean baseball. What are your overall thoughts on the KBO league?

A: I think it's just, obviously a lot of passion. It's really similar to the MLB. A lot of passion that kind of goes on. I'm sure there is a lot of work behind the scenes. Just like everything else. The main thing I see is just the love and the passion that goes on in each and every game. It's just exciting to watch.

Q: What do you think are the major differences between the MLB and KBO in terms of baseball culture and fan culture?

A: I think the fans are similar. Obviously, there's a lot of love for the teams there just like there's a lot of love for the teams here. The differences; one of them likes bat-flips, celebrations, I think that is the main difference between the KBO and MLB, but I think everything is pretty close and the same.

Q: Speaking of bat-flips, bat-flips are normally considered disrespectful in the MLB but here in Korea, it's a huge source of entertainment. What do you think about South Korean players flipping their bats?

A: I think its... It's fun. I don't necessarily do it. There has been maybe, one or two times that I have done a bat flip. It wasn't on purpose. It was just kind of in the flow in motion of the game but I think it's definitely cool seeing all that side. It's very entertaining for sure.

Q: Do you have any favorite bat-flipper? Can you remember of any impressive bat-flips?

A: I've seen, watching, I get to watch YouTube and see obviously, the bat-flips. I've been watching the beginning of, the opening day and seeing some bat-flips. Everybody has their own style and I think it's not one in particular that I can think about. It's just all different. It's just fun watching all the different styles of bat-flips.

Q: There are Korean star players that started off from KBO and then made it to the MLB. Have you spotted any young Koreans that maybe would get a chance to sign major league contracts?

A: Yeah, I think, like I said, Lee Jung-hoo and Kang Baek-ho, I think those guys are… Lee Jung-hoo definitely reminds me of the Ichiro-kind of vibe and Kang Baek-ho reminds me of one of my teammates ― Devers, Rafael Devers. I think, like I said those guys have for sure, the potential to make it to the MLB and have successful careers.

Q: Let's talk a little bit more about your future plans. Can we expect more of this content promoting baseball in the future? And what kind of content do you think would be fun and interesting to try out?

A: There are a couple of videos I have waiting to bring to the surface but I don't want to tip my hand and let anybody know anything yet. But there's definitely more to come. I'm very excited to be a part of this whole thing. I'm very glad that this all happened and happen to be where I am right now alongside with the KBO.

Q: Would you like to leave any messages for your Korean baseball fans?

A: The main thing I would like to say is just thank you for all the support. Stay tuned. I have some more videos that will be uploaded on YouTube. I just really want to visit Korea one day, be shown around, meet some of the guys, and just dive into the culture. I'm very interested in that.

Q: As you know, Korea has some really large companies like Samsung, Hyundai and Doosan. You know they are involved with American sports. Why should these large Korean companies continue to invest in Major League Baseball? And what does it mean for you?

A: I think it's the players. I think it is the more of players making them the brand, not necessarily the teams. You know I think about things behind Yao Ming and the Rockets. That kind of thing. Michael Jordan with the Bulls. And Chan-ho Park in the Dodgers. I think that gives the players a definite drive. That's how they play out.

Q: How has the transition been for you, from east coast to west coast?

A: It's definitely a big difference. Obviously the time change is the first thing I can think about ― three hours. Three-hour difference is a lot in baseball. Everything has been pretty close to the same. I love my teammates. I met a group of teammates here with the Dodgers. The front office is great. I think I spent a whole lot of time with them. Because this time I got to spare with them was definitely a joy. I am definitely looking forward to be back with those guys.

Q: I am sure in Los Angeles you might spend some time in K Town. Is there any specific food you like or any Korean food you particularly enjoy?

A: Thinking about… When I get there, I am definitely excited to hit K Town. I want to try Korean BBQ there. I did a few time before, but I want to try, in LA, Korean fried chicken and some kimchi. They are kind of my top things I want to try. Like I said, I am definitely excited to come over and meet everyone.

Jhoo Dong-chan
Lee Min-young

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