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Goold: One throw in Korea started Oh on long journey to Cardinals

Goold: One throw in Korea started Oh on long journey to Cardinals

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The rubber ball was red or blue or maybe both and it felt slightly larger than a grapefruit when a teacher handed it to Seung Hwan Oh.

With his elementary school classmates, Oh, 11 at the time and living in South Korea’s Jeolla Province, lined up for a series of standard fitness tests. They ran races, they jumped, they played some sports, just as Oh and his friends usually did. Sports were a joy, a diversion, and he never thought of them as a pursuit until a teacher gave him a ball and a simple instruction.

Throw it. As far as you can.

This is how the Final Boss was born. He threw the ball a greater distance than any of his peers, and with that one toss, the first of thousands, Oh launched an idea for his teacher. He suggested Oh find another school, one that had a baseball team, and by the next year Oh was busing away from the nearby elementary to a school with baseball, and then moving again to a high school with better baseball. Then again for college. Then again to play professionally, to become a celebrity, to date a K-pop star, and then into Korean baseball history. Then around the world. The furthest throw of any kid he knew would take Oh farther than he ever imagined.

“That’s how I started baseball, for the first time,” Oh said, through translator Eugene Koo. “When I was in high school and I traveled almost an hour or two to go play baseball. There was a lot of traveling. As a kid, every time I went to play baseball it was far away from home.”

So, baseball became home.

“You can say that,” Oh added. “It’s where I spend most of my time.”

This past winter, the Cardinals went shopping for a reliever and Oh went looking for a chance to prove his stuff in the majors. Almost seven years of scouting him and two months of discussions brought the Cardinals and Oh together in January. They agreed to a one-year, $2.5-million deal that, given his current success, will inevitably guarantee a second year. Oh, who turned 34 this month, came to the Cardinals as the all-time saves leader in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and he recently assumed the ninth-inning role with the Cardinals. With saves in each game of this past Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep, Oh became the first Cardinals closer with two saves on the same day since 2004.

They were the third and fourth of his rookie season in the majors.

They were the 360th and 361st of his career.

“He was the best closer in Korea. He was a legend already,” said Douglas Kim, Oh’s agent. “He’s celebrated. Everyone knows who he is when he goes out. … He needed some new environment, new circumstances. He needed a new baseball league to find a new challenge. The past 11 years, he did everything he could in Korea and Japan. He was excited for the challenge in Major League Baseball.”

During negotiations, the righthander told Cardinals officials he wanted to be the first pitcher to appear in the KBO’s championship series, the Japan Series, and the World Series. He also has a Gold Medal from 2008. Oh paused when Koo translated a question about whether he’s found that challenge – and met it. The stoic face that earned the nickname “Stone Buddha” didn’t crack a smile.

“I have to do better,” he said. “Long season.”

‘OH! OH! OH!’

Before the late innings arrive, the phone call comes, and Oh begins his obsessively precise preparations to pitch, there is plenty of time to talk in the bullpen. Some of Oh’s fellow relievers have learned Korean phrases, and all have exposed him to English phrases. While his teammates like to kid him about dating a member of Girls Generation, a Korean music group, it’s food and baseball that direct the conversations. Oh describes favorite Korean dishes (he likes spicy) and how Asian hitters are different than he’s faced in the majors (they like spoiling pitches, slapping them foul). Teammates really learn about Oh from watching.

How he stretches the exact same way.

How he warms up his arm the exact same way.

How he gets off the bench the exact same way.

And, especially, how fans react to him.

“Everywhere. Everywhere we go, at least once a series, but mostly every game, they’ll be like, ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!,’” rookie Matt Bowman said. “They’ll get their picture. They won’t ask for anything more, just that picture and they think it’s the coolest thing. Mostly what I see is clearly he was such a legend in Korea and Japan but he comes here and is extremely unassuming. You’d never know until you see how he literally waves at people and men and women faint, like, ‘Oh my God, he waved at me.’”

To a man, Oh’s teammates and manager Mike Matheny describe him as strategically funny, even impish. This was clear during interviews to discuss Oh’s origin, how he learned baseball, how he became a closing sensation in a starter’s league, and how he came to be a Cardinal. With the help of his agent and Koo, the Cincinnati native hired by the Cardinals to translate for Oh, interviews were conducted over the course of several weeks, and during one hour-long conversation at Busch Stadium, it was clear how Oh uses two-step delivery to offer glimpses into his personality.

He answers a question with a straight face or a glacially paced grin. Only Koo’s laugh gives it away. Then the translation reveals the joke.

Asked if he would be recognized on the street in Seoul, Oh nods.

“Maybe,” Oh says, the grin starting at one corner of his mouth.

(Koo translates that as a yes.)

Asked about what he likes to do away from the ballpark to experience U.S. cities or St. Louis, Oh answers, flatly: “Sleep.” Asked what he remembers from his first visit to the United States, pitching in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Oh deadpans his answer: “Very jetlagged. I remember jetlag.”

Asked about the fastball that he holds uniquely, tucking his thumb under the ball and into the seam, he says his middle school teacher taught it to him.

“He told me this is the way to throw fast,” Oh explained. “It creates some space in there, some movement. It was because he suggested this is what it would take to throw the ball hard. I thought it was fast. But I can’t really call it a hardball now. Not here. Because everybody throws above 95 (mph) anyway in the majors.”

‘GRATEFUL TO PITCH’

The son of a jeweler, Oh grew up with two older brothers, who would attend his games whenever possible. Oh chased baseball from school to school until he reached Dankook University. He missed two years of college recovering from Tommy John surgery, and for a time the soreness in his arm was so much that he shifted to outfield. While a student, he would wear a necklace designed by his father, one that had a gold figure crafted by father. On the back of the pendant, Oh’s father engraved his son’s initials: OSH.

The necklace remains back in Korea.

“I don’t think they’ve sold it yet,” Oh said. Koo laughed.

Not so humorous was how difficult it became for Oh to return from the injury. In hindsight, Oh recognizes that stretch of his career as a learning experience.

At the time it seemed like something else — the end.

“I was seriously considering if I should quit baseball,” Oh said with Koo translating. “Even though I was going to school my close friends are in uniform and playing baseball and I was frustrated that I couldn’t do the same thing. … I actually learned a lot. Off the field, away from the pitching, I learned a mentality. For example, before I got injured I was sometimes lazy going out there, just putting in the work, but not recognizing what a blessing that moment is. I had to be grateful to pitch.”

Oh returned to pitch enough that the Samsung Lions drafted him in 2005, in the 12th round. He was, as Kim said, “not a platinum … but a good normal pitcher. A gold.” But his manager saw something else. Dong-yeol Sun is arguably the KBO’s greatest pitcher, and he had a 1.20 ERA – in his career. In 1993, he went 10-3 with 31 saves and a 0.78 ERA in 126 1/3 innings. Oh recently described how he didn’t choose to be a closer, it wasn’t a role he sought. His manager told him he had “a strong heart.” He also had that unusual fastball grip and the late, giddy-up deception it creates.

BECOMING THE ‘FINAL BOSS’

In July of 2005, Oh moved into the closer’s role. He saved 16 games (and pitched 99 innings). The next three seasons he led the KBO in saves. He also turned 25. At the start of the 2013 season he became the first KBO closer to reach 250 career saves, and his 277 remains the KBO career record. A free agent for the first time two years ago, Oh headed to Japan and led its league in saves. Although his closest friends have long called him “boss” – for his decisiveness when they’re hanging out or going out – as Asia’s top closer he earned the nickname Final Boss (“Kkeut-pan wang” in Korean) and Stone Buddha (“Dol boo chuh”).

His entry into the game became an event, as the speakers cranked up a throbbing, pro-environmental heavy rock song by the Korean band N.EX.T. The song’s title, “Lazenca, Save Us.”

Oh made closing cool.

“These young guys when they would do interviews they would say, ‘I want to be the starting pitcher’ or ‘I want to become one of the best hitters when I grow up,’” Koo said, explaining Oh’s description. “It wasn’t like they were saying, ‘I want to become the best bullpen pitcher’ before. He’s glad he showed people it’s a good position. … The starting pitcher would get a lot of the spotlight. It’s meaningful to him personally, that a lot of people are showing interest, putting a spotlight on the closer position. Young players can dream of being one of the best closers.”

ACCLIMATING AND EXCELLING

Early in the season, Koo provided Matheny with a list of phrases in Korean that the manager could use to talk with Oh. They allow him to ask about Oh’s arm strength, his health, and his availability. The righthander insists on responding in English.

Hired to help Oh acclimate to the States and even visit the mound to translate, for example, bunt defense instructions, Koo also lives with Oh. The reliever even had his glove manufacturer make Koo his own glove so during batting practice he has one. Koo works with Oh with his English, and following Aledmys Diaz’s suggestion they’re using television shows to help. Though instead of Diaz’s favorite – “The Ellen Show” – Oh and Koo watch “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.”

Care packages arrive from Texas and California, from a snack company in Korea and from fans in Japan – all to give Oh some tastes of home.

The Cardinals hold a $2.75-million option for 2017, and a source with knowledge of the contract said the option will vest automatically if Oh finishes 30 games. He has 13. Oh’s contract assures he can be a free agent after the 2017 season. He could be on the go again. He traveled 6,662 miles from Seoul to St. Louis to show what he does across 60 feet, 6 inches translates wherever he is.

It’s a long way from that long throw.

“Once you face tough competition here you sometimes find out what you need to work on a little bit more,” Oh said. “The answer is always there, if you are willing to give it a try. When I turned pro my goal was just like players here – actually making the team. I wasn’t expecting anything like being a star player or being in the majors.”

All of that came on the move.

The nicknames. The fans. The records. The pop star.

Speaking of the K-pop sensation, Kwon Yuri, publications obsessed with that music industry have suggested Oh and her broke up, separated by the distance they both had to go for their careers. One friend of his thinks they’re still in contact. When asked about her, Oh grins and answers with the only two English words he says in an hour-long interview.

“No comment.”

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