The Toronto Blue Jays’ Japanese infielder Munenori Kawasaki’s jubilant post-game interview following his game-winning hit on May 26, 2013 against the Orioles became an Internet sensation overnight. Pure joy shone through his broken-English speech and captured the hearts of Jays’ fans on that sunny spring afternoon.
Many Asian immigrant players struggle to adapt to North American culture, the media and style of baseball once they sign to an American team. A desire to help those players smoothly transition to the lifestyle of a new country and excel professionally is why third-year law student Han Lee founded his consulting firm Global Sporting Integration.
After signing with an American baseball team, Asian players are exposed to a completely foreign setting with fundamental differences ranging from language, culture, conditioning and food to variances in pitching mound sizes and travel schedules.
“What we would really like to create is a system where when a player signs, he would go through a system that would acculturate them to America,” Lee said.
Having emigrated from South Korea himself at 15 years old, Lee said he doesn’t believe enough is being done to help professional Asian baseball players adjust to life in America once they decide to play in the United States.
“I personally experienced many challenges that these athletes face every day,” Lee said. “Having overcome the obstacles myself, I’m hoping to help players find success as well.”
Lee initially approached former Temple law professor Jeremi Duru in an attempt to pursue a career assisting an Asian athletes coming to America for a career in baseball. Duru then introduced Lee to Professor Ken Jacobsen, a partial owner of the minor league Wilmington Blue Rocks team, who came up with the idea of creating a league-wide service for Asian players.
“[Lee] is extremely conscious and extremely committed,” Duru said. “He’s the driving force behind [GSI].”
Last March, Jacobsen said he met with major league officials who expressed interest in utilizing a consulting firm that would aid their Asian players. In December, GSI was officially launched and introduced by Jacobsen at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Florida.
“Everyone we talked to [at the Winter Meetings] recognized the need for this service,” Jacobsen said. “Nothing has been offered to these players that GSI offers.”
Jacobsen said he recalls Kawasaki’s shining moment in May with some reservation, particularly regarding the motives of the press at the scene.
“I think the most interesting thing is that [the press] didn’t even initially try to interview him,” Jacobsen said.
He said the TV crew immediately turned to Kawasaki’s teammate, Mark DeRosa, who scored the winning run for an interview. This deviates from the tradition of primarily talking to the player with the game-winning hit. Viewers only heard from Kawasaki after he unexpectedly jumped in front of the camera and started reading from a notebook containing English translations.
“Reporters know [Kawasaki] isn’t going to be able to speak good English,” Lee said. “But as a fan, you want to hear what is going on in his mind. I would like to hear the player’s voice directly, not through an interpreter.”
Asian immigrant baseball players competing in the United States have complained about feeling isolated and confused once entering the U.S. and the major leagues.
“[Former Yankees pitcher] Kei Igawa had trouble finding Japanese food after ball games in New York City,” Lee said. “It’s absurd.”
Endorsement deals are an additional area in which GSI hopes to aid Asian players. Players in Japan are national heroes who are hugely marketable, but Lee said they do not receive the same opportunities in America.
“When was the last time you saw an Asian player speaking English in a commercial?” Lee said. “Nike may not want [recent Yankees Japanese signee Masahiro] Tanaka because right now he cannot relate to their market base.”
While there are many Latino and Spanish-speaking players in Major League Baseball, there will only be approximately 65 Asian players – roughly 2 percent of all players – in the league in 2014.
GSI is flexible in its outreach efforts, Lee said. After signing with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japanese professional league, former Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis reached out to GSI for advice. To help ease his transition to Japan, Lee said he prepared a pamphlet for Youkilis detailing Japanese food, culture and baseball.
“We started communicating with [Youkilis’s] agent after his signing was finalized,” Lee said. “We’re confident that the information that we provided him and his family will make a difference.”
Finishing his graduate education while taking care of the everyday business of GSI has been challenging for Lee, but he said the commitment is worthwhile.
“Juggling two full-time commitments is certainly a challenge,” Lee said. “There are not enough hours in a day – let’s just put it that way.”
Andrew Thayer can be reached at email@example.com.