SEOUL (Reuters) - Only a week ago he was known merely as Korean baseball’s first foreign manager, a journeyman hired by a lackluster team that ended next to last in 2007.
In just the second week of the season, Jerry Royster is now hailed for sparking a baseball revolution.
His long-suffering Lotte Giants have shot to first place after six wins in eight games, including handing out an 11-1 thrashing on the opening day and a 7-0 triumph on Sunday.
The brilliant start has boosted attendances and led fans to maintain Royster’s aggressive style of play is just what is needed in a league known for its cautious approach.
Newspaper headlines celebrate him as “Hurricane Royster” with “a magic touch” on the diamond.
Over on the main page of the Lotte Giants Web site, the image of a pensive-looking Royster towers over a shining home stadium in Busan, South Korea’s second city that constantly fights for attention in a country dominated by Seoul.
Web sites and print media report Royster’s daily strategy, his difficulties with Korean names and his karaoke skills.
“Long Live the Imported Seagull,” one newspaper cover screamed last week, a reference to Lotte’s mascot bird.
Foreign coaches and managers are not new in South Korea where the memory of Guus Hiddink, the Dutchman who led the national soccer team to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, remains vivid.
But it is a first in South Korea’s conservative baseball world where managers are known to maintain military-style discipline and rarely interact with players.
Royster, a former Major League third baseman whose only tenure as big-league manager during the Milwaukee Brewers’ troubled 2002 season ended with a 53-94 record, relishes the early public attention.
“I’m enjoying all the excitement around this team,” the 55-year-old told Reuters during practice at a recent series against the LG Twins, one of Seoul’s three professional teams.
“I feel a big responsibility to my team and to Korean baseball. They took a big chance by bringing an American to coach here.”
Royster signed with Lotte last November and has been in South Korea since January, working through spring camp at instilling a more aggressive, confident style of baseball.
His inspiration comes from Bobby Valentine, the ex-New York Mets manager who has gained folk hero status in Japan as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Lotte Giants’ sister team.
“Bobby Valentine wanted to bring someone to freshen up this part of the company, spice it up a little,” said Royster.
It has worked wonders so far.
The Giants, who have not been anywhere near a playoff berth since 2000, share top spot in the eight-team league after starting the season with four straight victories.
Royster had looked at countless hours of tapes from previous Lotte seasons and identified some glaring weaknesses.
“When they fell behind, they had a tendency to give up. I’m trying to get that out of them,” he said.
While respectful of his players’ culture, Royster is also working hard at eradicating some mental traits he believes can hinder a team’s success.
“They used to shy away from situations,” he said. “They tended to give in to a player because of their status. Now we have them competing with a player.”
Although the weekend series between the visiting Lotte Giants and the more renowned LG Twins was set in Seoul, the stadium almost felt like Giants territory and visiting fans were rewarded with a 6-4 victory on Friday.
“I think there’s more of them than us,” said Lee Jung-hoon, an LG Twins fan.
In typical Korean fashion, fans of the home team were seated on the first-base side of the stadium while a raucous crowd of Busan followers, complete with cheerleaders, filled the third base side to capacity.
“This is a different team that plays a more tenacious kind of game,” said Song Taek-in, a Giants fan. “The manager seems to be giving his players more chances.”
“This team is aggressive but it also knows how to play according to the different phases of the game,” said Song Chi-whan, another Giants fan.
A group of thirty-something men in full Giants uniform paraded by, singing team songs.
“This is a manager who trusts his players. Even if they don’t hit for several games, he keeps sending them out and encouraging them,” said Kim Jong-gil, who with his friends had come all the way from Busan, 420 km (260 miles) away.
“He is Busan’s Hiddink.”
None of the fans interviewed by Reuters expressed reservations about Royster’s nationality in a country where the presence of almost 30,000 U.S. troops remains a volatile issue.
“We’ve seen foreign managers in other sports,” said Lee, the LG Twins fan. “There really isn’t any hostility that I can think of — but there’s curiosity for sure.”
Should Korean managers be worried about Royster’s success this season?
“They should be,” said Park Chang-ho, another LG Twins fan. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
Additional reporting by Lee Jee-yeon and Park Ju-min; editing by Dave Thompson