Pirates' Wilk thrown a curve in South Korea
DUNEDIN, Fla. — The sales pitch Adam Wilk received a year ago from a South Korean baseball team seemed almost too good to be true.
As things turned out, it was.
Wilk left the Detroit Tigers organization in February 2012 to spend a season pitching for the NC Dinos of the Korean Professional Baseball League. He hoped the move would help him latch on with another MLB club.
This spring, Wilk is in camp with the Pirates on a minor league contract. But the left-hander said his time in Korea did nothing to boost his career.
“It was an experience, to say the least,” Wilk said. “For me, it wasn't a good experience. A lot of (the team's) promises were very deceitful, an attempt to get us to sign.”
There were 17 foreign players — guys from the United States and Latin America — in the KPBL last season. Wilk, 26, was one of three American pitchers with the NC Dinos.
The Dinos are based in Changwon, an industrial city on South Korea's southeastern coast. The North Korean border is about 400 miles away, and tensions between the countries always are high.
“It was nerve-racking,” Wilk said. “I had a ‘to-go bag' ready to go in case I needed to ditch the country and escape on a boat to Japan. I tried my best not to think about it because I didn't want to be worried.”
Wilk said team officials told the Americans they would live in upscale apartments in the Jungang-Dong district, which has plenty of shops and restaurants that cater to foreigners. Instead, Wilk said he was housed in an area several miles away.
“No parks, no restaurants, no anything,” Wilk said. “There was nothing to do. We found out later that the apartments in (Jungang-Dong) were significantly more expensive and the team wanted to cut costs.”
The Americans' arrival led to friction in the clubhouse. Wilk said his coaches and teammates were upset he wanted to stick with his usual training routine instead of the Korean system, which involves a lot of sprints and practically no weightlifting. There also is a sort of caste system based on age.
“If I'm 35 (years old) and the guy next to me is 34 and I can tell him to get me a bottle of water, he's got to do it or I could hit him,” Wilk said. “A lot of the young guys enjoyed hanging around with us because we wouldn't make them do stuff even though we were older.”
The fields are smaller than MLB ballyards. Masan Stadium, the Dinos' home field, has a capacity of 16,000 and is 380 feet to center field. The baseballs are not rubbed up before a game. Pitchers get them straight out of the package, shiny white and slick.
“It's a different style of baseball,” Wilk said. “Not a lot of power hitters there. Guys just want to put the ball in play, singles hitters. They're taking two-strike swings from the first pitch of the game.”
The relationship between Wilk and the Dinos' manager was uneasy from the start and only got worse. In August, six months after arriving, Wilk left South Korea. He pitched in 17 games and went 4-8 with a 4.12 ERA.
“The manager didn't want me anymore,” Wilk said. “They sent me home early, then lied to the media about it. They said I had an arm injury.”
After Wilk returned to the United States, his agent let MLB teams know Wilk was healthy and eager to play for an American team. He signed with the Pirates in January and got a non-roster invite to spring training.
Wilk said his brief stint in South Korea wasn't all bad.
“It definitely taught me that, however many problems the United States has, we still are the best country in the world,” he said. “It helped me as a pitcher. It's a different style of baseball over there, and I had to learn how to be successful. I did learn a lot.”
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