How an adopted Korean ‘god’ has turned Major League Baseball on its collective ear
Slugger Eric Thames found more than his groove in Asia and, sadly, suspicion was sure to follow
Not much seems to happen in Changwon, South Korea. The country’s ninth largest city, it is roughly a quarter the size of nearby Busan. But unlike Busan it does not have a huge international film festival and has never hosted World Cup matches, the Asian Games or an Apec conference. It is, however, the first “planned city” in Korea and bills itself as an environmental capital.
Like the rest of the country, people in Changwon are obsessed these days with being squarely in the crosshairs of the game of nuclear chicken playing out between North Korea and the United States. There are, it seems, other pressing issues on their mind, most notably the exploits of their prodigal son in the US.
With a beard like Methuselah and a swing like Babe Ruth, Eric Thames is hard to miss. The laid back northern California native has taken Major League Baseball by storm this season. In his first 20 games with the Milwaukee Brewers, the first baseman hit 11 home runs and is on pace to hit 89 this year, which would easily smash Barry Bond’s single season record of 73.
All of this has been cause for great shock and disbelief in the baseball world and beyond but not in Changwon. As a member of NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organisation (KBO) in the past three years, Thames nickname was God.
While the handle may sound sacrilegious to some, in 329 games Thames hit 124 home runs, a divine ratio of one in every 2.5 games. Bear in mind that pitchers in the KBO used every assortment of trickery to thwart Thames and none of it worked.
Of course, the KBO is hardly the major leagues. In fact, in Asia it is a definite notch below Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League and up until 2015, when Kang Jung-ho joined the Pittsburgh Pirates, no position player from the KBO had ever made the jump to the majors.
After knocking around the minors for a few years and with a couple of brief stops in the majors, Thames decided to take a flier and signed a three-year contract for US$3.75 million to head off to Korea and presumably to never be heard of again.
There are numerous stories of major league players who have successfully returned from sojourns in Japan but none have found their groove in Korea.
Once Thames discovered how remote his new home was, he set about learning as much Korean as possible, finding it next to impossible to use English. Turns out there was no shortage of translators, though, willing to help him.
He was literally a rock star, mobbed everywhere he went and even had a hit song written about him. One night he was dining with a lovely date and as he leaned over to kiss her, he was poked in the back by an autograph hound.
This is too much, he thought, and when the Brewers came around offering him a fairly lucrative contract, the 30-year-old decided he had enough of being a mortal god and headed stateside to give the majors one last shot.
Despite his early season success, the humble and self-deprecating Thames is almost too good to be true. “I was just guessing,” he said with a chuckle when an interviewer asked him about the five home runs he hit during a recent four-game series, “and the ball went over the fence.”
The bearded, brawny slugger is literally a throwback and that in itself is raising a lot of eyebrows. His buffed frame looks like something from 20 years ago when hulking behemoths, many rife with performance enhancing drugs, laid waste to long-cherished home run records.
After a recent series against the Chicago Cubs, both the pitching coach and one of their pitchers said there was something very suspicious about Thames.
During his first go-round in the majors, Thames struggled mightily to hit off speed and breaking balls. However, after seeing nothing but those pitches in Korea, his discipline at the plate has improved greatly.
Still, he is not naïve. “We’re in an era of fallen heroes,” Thames said. “I do understand what people are saying and I did come out of nowhere to them, but not to myself.”
You really want this guy to be legit. The small market Brewers, who saw their franchise slugger Ryan Braun test positive six years ago, want him to be legit. Major League Baseball also desperately wants him to be legit.
And last but not least, the good people of Changwon most assuredly want their divine prodigal son to be legit.