By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, April 20 (Yonhap) -- Before his first pitch in every game, Dan Straily, a major league veteran now plying his trade in South Korea, etches the initials of his late great grandfather and the year of his passing into the dirt behind the rubber on the mound.
After writing "MR" for Mark Ross and "04" for 2004, Straily, a new right-hander for the Lotte Giants in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), draws an arc around them so that he does not step on them.
It is his way of honoring the man who took the young Daniel to his first baseball game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and who played a major role in the future major league pitcher's career, dating back to Little League days.
"If there's one person in this world that I've ever met that would have been the most proud to see me pitch in the majors or even pitch professionally, it would have been him," Straily told Yonhap News Agency in a recent phone interview from the Giants' home city of Busan, 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
"It's something I've always done," Straily said. "I honestly don't remember when it started. I don't remember ever forgetting to do it."
Straily said the first time he got to do that at Dodger Stadium -- his first career appearance there came on May 25, 2016, while pitching for the Cincinnati Reds -- was "pretty special." He struck out 11 in that game to match his then-career high.
Straily, a 31-year-old with 156 Major League Baseball (MLB) games to his name, will now get to honor his late great grandfather on Korean soil for the first time. And Ross would indeed have been quite proud to see how Straily is already trying to make a positive impact on his new team in a new country.
"I'd say some of my biggest attributes are work ethic and confidence," he said. "Staying diligent gives me a lot of confidence, and you hope that spreads to your teammates and hopefully, they can try to outwork you. That's how you eventually start to win as a team, with everybody on the same page, working hard toward the same goal."
After posting an unsightly 9.82 ERA in 14 appearances for the Baltimore Orioles in 2019, Straily got demoted to the minors in midseason. It was "a big wake-up call," said Straily, who also admitted to going through "some dark times on the mound." He performed better in Triple-A, with a 3.76 ERA in 12 starts, with 68 strikeouts in 67 innings.
Straily sensed that his next career stop might be overseas, and he also knew he was not just going to be handed a job.
"One misconception might be that you just get to choose to come over here. That's not how it works," he said. "Not just anybody gets to come to Korea. You still have to perform, and you still have to get asked and offered to come over here. The only reason I am here is because I was able to stay focused and I was trying to pitch well enough to get overseas offers to come in."
Straily said he reached out to two former KBO pitchers, Josh Lindblom and Seth Frankoff, "to get a sense of what to expect and what the differences were" in off-field matters, such as traveling and getting meals. As for on-field adjustments, Straily came in with an open mind.
"The one thing that I knew I had to do was to learn the Korean style of hitting, because you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you think that everybody here hits like they hit in America, or that everybody here hits the same way," he said. "I took it upon myself to try to adapt as fast as possible. That means I have to be willing to change myself, instead of just being the stubborn guy. I joined the KBO, and the KBO didn't join me."
Straily has not yet had a chance to face opposing hitters, because KBO clubs are currently only allowed to play intrasquad games. The regular season, which would have begun on March 28 if not for the coronavirus outbreak, has been postponed indefinitely. The preseason, initially set for March 14-24, was also wiped out. But with the number of new cases having been in steady decline this month, the KBO's preseason will begin Tuesday. The regular season could follow in the first week of May.
While he has studied videos of hitters on other teams, Straily declined to name anyone that has caught his eye, saying with a chuckle, "I don't want to tip my hand."
But Straily was more than willing to share his thoughts on his own teammates, and named infielder Han Dong-hee and outfielder Jeon Jun-woo as the best Lotte hitters he has seen so far in spring.
Han, 20, was the Giants' Opening Day third baseman the past two seasons but has yet to live up to the hype as a hard-hitting prospect. In 146 career games, Han has a .219/.275/.324 line with six home runs and 34 RBIs. But Han's natural gifts are hard to miss -- the current Lotte manager Heo Mun-hui once watched Han hit in spring training as a rookie in 2018 and was shocked to learn that the kid had just come out of high school.
Jeon is a more established hitter at 34, a former All-Star Game MVP coming off his third consecutive season of batting at least .300. Even with the power numbers falling across the league due to the de-juiced ball in 2019, Jeon still launched a team-leading 22 home runs -- sixth in the league -- and knocked in 83 runs.
"They're just really good hitters. They have good approaches," Straily said. "They don't chase, and you can tell they know who they are in the box and they stick to that."
With a little help from these hitters, Straily will try to keep the Giants out of the league cellar. At 48-93-3 (wins-losses-ties) in 2019, the Giants finished last for the first time since 2004.
When the Giants are thriving, there is hardly a better team to play for in the KBO, with their passionate fans packing the 24,500-seat Sajik Stadium. They were once the only KBO club to draw over 1 million fans in a season (1.37 million in 2008), and the 1.38 million fans that they had in 2009 remains the single-season KBO record.
Last year, only about 680,000 fans went to Sajik. The Giants ranked just seventh in attendance, and with an average of 9,433, it was the first time since 2006 that they had failed to average more than 10,000 fans per game.
Straily said he has heard about how loud it can get at his home park. Early regular season games will be played without fans anywhere in the KBO to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and Straily is only hoping he gets to pitch in front of fans at some point.
"Hopefully, we're not playing without fans the whole year," he said. "Obviously, keeping everyone healthy is the first and foremost
"Selfishly," Straily said, before correcting himself, "It's not even selfish because that means the country is doing better (with the virus situation) if we get fans in the game."
Though teams will be playing without fans for the time being, the KBO is still expected to draw some international interest as only the second professional baseball league to get started amid the COVID-19 pandemic, after Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League.
The American sports media giant ESPN has approached KBO about airing games to the U.S. audience. Straily himself has been interviewed for an ESPN.com story on the KBO's preparations for the new season despite the pandemic, while MLB remains on hold.
Straily said it is a chance to address misconceptions about the KBO among American fans. He himself had only known the KBO by some wild bat flips and "the legend of Eric Thames," referring to the 2015 KBO MVP who made a successful return to the majors.
It could also be a lucrative business opportunity.
"These baseball teams are businesses. With no fans in the seats, that's a lot of money lost," he said. "Hopefully, they're able to take advantage of this situation a bit for themselves to get their brand out there and get revenue back."
In the meantime, Straily said he understands the role the players have to keep local fans interested. After his scrimmage appearance last Tuesday, he was stopped by fans outside Sajik Stadium for photos. Though players have been discouraged from having contact with strangers because of COVID-19 concerns, Straily said he is also trying to be respectful.
"They're showing us a lot of support, and I feel like it's our job to show them the same support," he said, speaking also for his two import teammates, Adrian Sampson and Dixon Machado. "Everyone has made us feel comfortable and we want to try to show that we appreciate the support."