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JONES: Canadian back to playing baseball in Korean League

SK Wyverns infielder Jamie Romak (R) forces out Hanwha Eagles' Ha Ju-suk (L) at first base in the second inning during the opening game for South Korea's new baseball season at Munhak Baseball Stadium in Incheon on May 5, 2020.
SK Wyverns infielder Jamie Romak (R) forces out Hanwha Eagles' Ha Ju-suk (L) at first base in the second inning during the opening game for South Korea's new baseball season at Munhak Baseball Stadium in Incheon on May 5, 2020.

It was 4:07 a.m., Sunday when the mystical dragon responded from Incheon.

Which is to say that was the time on this side of the ocean the first baseman of the SK Wyverns connected from South Korea. SK is the conglomerate that sponsors the team. Wyverns translates to mystical dragons.

Jamie Romak is the only Canadian baseball player currently playing in the just-underway Korean pro league. He holds the Canadian record for foreign league home run in a single season with 45 from 2018 set with his current club.

The London, Ont. native who made it to the majors with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, ought to sign on as a consultant with the Toronto Blue Jays when it comes to the MLB plans of returning to action in empty stadiums.

If there has been a nation that has provided an example of how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been Korea. And the eyes of every major professional sports league in the world ought to be on the Korean league.

The KBO, in effect, is the sports world’s leadoff hitter.

“We are playing with a lot of gratitude considering the worldwide conditions for professional sports. Our home stadium hung banners with pictures of fans across all the outfield seating,” said Romak.

“Our team also ran a live Zoom thing on our scoreboard where fans could connect and cheer us on. They’ve also allowed our team cheerleaders in to perform as usual as well as our ‘emcee’ that heads up each players individual cheer song. There might not be anybody in it, but our stadium keeps the music going as well. They’ve really done a great job at trying to give us a game-like atmosphere,” he said of playing in the 26,000-seat park.

“The Korean players are aware the world is watching but I’m not sure they care too much. The foreign players are very aware.

“The KBO is known for its lively crowds, so we are lacking a lot of the usual excitement. But I don’t think that’s going to last too long. It sounds like they’ll begin allowing fans in the next few weeks — 25 per cent in the beginning and gradually increase it from there.”

Romak has played in empty stadiums before.

“I’ve played in some international events with Team Canada where we’ve played in big empty stadiums. I guess the Canada-Germany match-up wasn’t a really big draw for the Taiwanese fans. We also played in some really cool and hostile environments like in Guadalajara when we beat the host in the semi and then the Americans for the gold in the 2011 Pan-Am Games.

“I’ve had a few experiences but this one is new for me and one that I actually hope doesn’t last too long. Both Korea and Japan are amazing experiences from a stadium and fan excitement perspective. Going into Tokyo to play in front of 45,000 for the first time with the Yokohama Bay Stars was something I’ll never forget. There’s a lot of tradition and history there and you could feel it.

“In 2018 my team won the Korean Series defeating the Doosan Bears who play in the old stadium in downtown Seoul. Both of our stadiums were electric all series.”

Spring training was definitely dialed down this year.

“We were only allowed to practice. They wanted to keep our group tight and limit outside exposure. They also encouraged us to stay home as much as possible when we weren’t at the field so life was pretty slow for a while.

“Korea has done a great job handling this crisis. Considering the dense population it certainly could have been a disaster here but mostly through testing as tracing they did well in identifying problem areas and containing them. Culturally the people acted in unison so people were very careful and generally stayed home.

“We just finished up a quick road trip where there was only one entrance in and out of the hotel with a thermal imaging scanner set up for checks coming and going. That’s also the case coming and going from the stadiums.

“We still do wear masks and have our temperature taken constantly. I did have a cashier at a store the other day correct me on the way I wore my mask that day. I guess my nose was too exposed. People would be pretty shocked how normal things have returned to being here.”

Romak isn’t complaining about playing in Asia. He says he’s still living the dream. It’s just a different dream.

It’s included winter league baseball in Caracas, Venezuela and touching a lot of other bases that only a few Canadians have touched.

“It’s been a blast. Every day I wake up full of adrenaline, nerves and excitement to play. It really is a thrill for me.

“As of right now I’m the only Canadian playing in Asia. There have been many more before me. Aaron Guiel, Scott Mathieson and Nigel Wilson all had great careers in Japan. I’m pretty sure Mike Johnson pitched in all three leagues — Japan, Korea and Taiwan,” he said of the Edmonton product that also had five years in the majors.

“Rob Ducey is a hitting coach in Taiwan.”

Romak doesn’t have his family there, as is the case under normal circumstances.

“My wife recently gave birth to our second child and I had to leave them 10 days later to get over here. At this time I’m not sure when we’ll get together again as my baby doesn’t have a passport and we haven’t been able to get any help on that from the federal government. We are hopeful circumstances may change soon.”

The timing might be right. When they arrive the might be able to go to a game.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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