By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Yinie Kasuya was sitting in her car outside the Full Count baseball training facility in suburban Atlanta when she was surprised by a knock on her window.
“I need your help,” Ariel Polanco, one of the hitting instructors, told Kasuya when she rolled down the window.
Kasuya’s oldest son, Jin, a freshman in high school, had trained with Polanco for years and he knew she spoke fluent Korean. Polanco needed somebody to translate what he was trying to teach a young Korean who had started training at the facility a few weeks earlier.
“Usually I don’t go in, I just wait in the car,” Kasuya said. “But he was trying to explain some techniques, and he asked me to translate.”
The player was Won-bin Cho, who had moved from South Korea to the U.S. in hopes of signing a contract with a major-league organization.
Starting on that day last October, Kasuya became just one of the many people who played a key role in Cho’s journey from South Korea to where he is now, in Jupiter, Fla., taking the first steps in his professional career, one he hopes will find him playing for the Cardinals in a few years.
“It takes a lot of people to put something like this together,” said the Cardinals’ Matt Slater, a special assistant to the general manager for player procurement. “Maybe that’s why we had never done it before, signing an amateur player from Asia. Now we’ve broken that ceiling.”
Here is the story of the agent, the host family, the scouts and, most importantly, the player, who all were involved in making Cho’s journey possible.
Han Lee knew that because of travel restrictions in South Korea during the pandemic, the only way that Cho would be able to attract interest from scouts was if he was able to move to the United States.
“Our employee in Korea tracked him down and said if he wanted to do it, we could help,” Lee said. “I got introduced to him in August. Everything kind of came together pretty quickly. The main reason behind bringing him over here was so he could get exposure.”
Lee was quickly impressed by Cho’s commitment in agreeing to leave his family and home, pulling his name from the Korean Baseball Organization draft, to pursue a dream he had had for years to play baseball in the United States, all before Cho turned 18 last August.
Although he wasn’t a pro baseball prospect, Lee knew a little bit about the challenges that Cho was going to face just in moving halfway across the world, especially when he didn’t speak English.
“I can personally relate,” Lee said. “I came as a foreign exchange student 20 years ago. I know what he first felt when he came to America. I put him in situations where he was uncomfortable. I put him in the hitting facility in Atlanta where we train.
“There were times where I actively took a step back just so he could go through those awkward interactions.”
Lee knew his mission was to get Cho in front of MLB scouts, and to let them see, and project, what Cho could offer to an organization willing to invest in him – a sweet left-handed swing, a body that could develop into a power hitter, the ability to run and throw well enough to play center field.
It was a skill that wasn’t as immediately obvious, however, that Lee thought would separate Cho from some other prospects, no matter what part of the world they were from.
“His will and determination,” Lee said. “He’s a very confident kid. He’s obsessed with working out, doing any baseball related activity – to a point where I was telling him, ‘You need to learn how to scale it back a little bit.’
“I thnk that’s going to be key in him thriving here in the U.S.; his work ethic, motivation and determination to succeed. Guys have to have that (when moving to the U.S.). They can’t be overwhelmed by the environment. They can’t be overwhelmed by the language and the different culture.”
Lee and his wife brought Cho into their home, trying to help him adjust culturally to what living in the U.S. was going to be like. Lee took him out to dinner, and tried to teach Cho what he needed to do when the day came that he was on his own, because that environment is much different than it is in Korea, Lee said.
“I told him when we were done eating, you had to ask for the check,” Lee said. “I wanted him to experience it himself, so I left him there and went to the restroom. It turned out he ended up asking the busboy for the check, and that kid said a bunch of things Won-bin didn’t understand.
“It was a teaching moment for him. Little things like that are hard to teach unless you actually go through it. I emphasize those things because I don’t want him to go out to eat and feel uncomfortable. Now he can go to Chipotle and order on his own.”
There were other times when Lee and Cho were together that Cho would not understand something and looked to Lee to translate for him.
“I would just shrug,” Lee said. “Figure it out – whether you have to point or repeat what you’re asking for. It’s just what you have to go through. I can’t help you with these basic steps. He’s very intitutive and very quick to pick things up.”
While Lee put an emphasis on learning those off-the-field skills, he also knew what was going to be of more immediate interest to teams – Cho’s baseball skills. He saw how hard Cho worked at his game, sometimes trying to do too much.
“When he was staying at my house, he’d work out all day then at night he would be in my living room practicing his swing,” Lee said. “I wouldn’t have been able to tell him to do that, because then I would be forcing it. He would hit at the facility for hours. There were many days where he would hit twice a day because that was just what he wanted to do.
“I represent more than two dozen players now and he has a work ethic and drive that I see in 30-year-olds, not in an 18-year-old kid. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I had to tell him to stop working out sometimes. He just feels a need and a drive to do that.”
As the first few months passed, Lee was able to get scouts to come look at Cho. He could tell the Cardinals had a great deal of interest. Lee had a longstanding relationship with Slater stemming from his representation of former major-leaguer Josh Lindblom, who also pitched for five years in Korea.
Lee was able to find teams for Cho to join last fall, again to get him in front of scouts. The more the Cardinals saw, the more interested they became in trying to sign him.
The host family
Jin Kasuya had told his mother about Cho, and how impressed he was when he watched Cho work out at the Full Count facility.
Reluctant to go in the facility even when Polanco asked for her help translating, Yinie Kasuya thought it was going to be an awkward situation.
“It’s just weird for a mom to go in there,” she said. “It just happened naturally. Our first meeting he (Cho) was so polite. He was very humble and respectful. I really liked his personality. I had a really good first impression meeting him.”
Kasuya had moved to the U.S. from South Korea when she was 7. In addition to speaking fluent Korean, she also is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and she could tell immediately that Cho was comfortable speaking with her.
“I felt like I was talking to my son,” she said. “Jin was 15 and he was 18. He had been here for a while and I could sense a little bit of loneliness; he didn’t say it but I could sense it.
“I knew the feeling of not being able to speak the language and communicate. I felt really bad for him because I knew what he was going through.”
Kasuya took Cho out to eat with her, Jin and her younger son. Soon, he began spending more and more time at their house.
“He even told me, ‘I don’t know why, I just feel so comfortable here,’” she said.
Kasuya’s motherly instincts took over, and when Lee called one day and asked if it would be possible for Cho to move in with her family while he was still waiting to sign with a team, she said yes.
“I was just thinking if my son ever went to a different country and he was 18 and he was having to face all of this, I would want someone to be there for him,” Kasuya said. “I never really thought of anything other than as a mom. I wanted him to be comfortable.”
Like Lee, however, Kasuya also established some rules for Cho if he was going to be living at her house – and made sure Cho knew what would be required of him.
“We’re a normal family,” she told Lee. “I’ve got rules. I’ve got teenagers.
“If you live here I’m going to treat you like my sons. Culturally in Korea they don’t tell kids to do a lot of chores. It’s a completely different lifestyle. Usually the mom does everything.”
Kasuya gave Cho his list of chores – taking out the trash; emptying the dishwasher, cleaning up after himself. In reality, as Lee had done, she was helping him learn what he would need to do once he was on his own.
She taught him how to fry an egg and how to make a simple salad, lessons she had already taught her two sons. She was impressed by how willing Cho was to learn about the American way of life.
Kasuya also was impressed by Cho’s dedication to making his dreams come true.
“I really have respect for him,” she said. “He’s only 18 and he’s very disciplined. I told my sons, ‘Look at him, he’s a role model.’ Jin is a baseball player too, and he looked at Won-bin as a big brother.”
When Lee and Cho went to Mexico for several days so Cho could obtain a work visa before spring training, they returned to Atlanta on the day of Jin’s first game of the season. Only a freshman, he is the starting shortstop on the varsity team and already has made a verbal commitment to play at the University of South Carolina.
“Won-bin told me he was going to be there, and I told him you don’t have to,” Kasuya said. “He said, ‘I’m going to see him. They came straight from the airport and got there for like the last two innings. It was so touching, so sweet.”
Kasuya made certain that Cho called his mother often, or at least sent a text message, just to let her know that he was doing OK. She also has talked with Cho’s parents, and they plan to meet for the first time in July when they travel from South Korea to Florida.
“If my son was out of the country, I would want to hear from him to say everything was good,” Kasuya said. “Just one sentence can make a mom’s day.”
Cho is now sending those messages to Kasuya as well.
“He’s getting so mature now,” she said. “We’re very excited for him.”
Cho first put himself on the Cardinals’ radar in November 2020 when he won a home run derby at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, the home of the Texas Rangers.
When Lee let the team know that Cho was pulling his name out of the KBO draft, and moving to Atlanta, the Cardinals interest – at least in wanting to see more of him – got stronger.
The more they saw Cho, and the more scouts they had see him, the more they liked what they saw.
Three scouts – Clint Brown, Brian Hopkins and Joe Almarez – all traveled to Atlanta to watch Cho last fall. So too did Moises Rodriguez, an assistant general manager in charge of international scouting, and Slater, who made two trips to see him. Slater sent video of Cho’s batting practice to Russ Steinhorn, the Cardinals’ minor-league hitting coordinator, to solicit his opinion.
Slater has long been involved in the Cardinals’ scouting of players in the Far East, being involved in many of the signings of players leaving the Japanese and Korean pro leagues.
“Every one of the scouts I sent in there came back to me, not knowing what the other scouts had said, and said, ‘You should see this guy on the bases. You should see how he handles himself in the on-deck circle,’” Slater said. “He’s just a very focused, committed young man.
“He really wants to do this. I already knew that when he took himself out of the KBO draft. He took a big risk. He had a lot of good friends on his high school team who got drafted. He would have been drafted. He took a risk, during Covid, at only 17 years old.”
As much as Slater and the other scouts liked Cho’s focus and passion, the biggest factor in deciding whether to sign any player comes down to his ability, and what the scouts think he will turn into in the future.
“He was so balanced at the plate with projectable power and a major-league body,” Slater said. “We liked his swing. We liked his approach. It really got down to his drive and his focus.”
Rodriguez looked at Cho with the same eyes he watches young prospects every year in Latin America. There was a lot that he liked as well.
“Everything was very positive about him,” Rodriguez said. “He flashed some power. He had a good stroke. He had a good approach. He checked a lot of boxes.
“He shows hitter’s instincts at the plate. He was just 18. You can see him progressing a lot more. We thought there was some upside there we could capture. We’re betting a bit on our player development system.
“He didn’t have a ton of structured game history, but that fits with the nature of international scouting. A lot of times we are trying to evaluate the raw tools and see if they translate. … You do a lot more projection and dreaming. It falls right in line with how we do a lot of our international evaluation. …There were a lot of things on top of his ability that made him attractive.”
Before the Cardinals submitted a formal offer, Slater and Rodriguez went to lunch with Cho and Lee, trying to get to know more about him and his background. They followed that up with a zoom call with Cho’s parents in South Korea.
“They were very meticulous in their process,” Lee said. “It was pretty obvious to see from the steps that they were taking that they cared for the player.”
When the international signing period began in January, the deal was finalized and Cho became a Cardinal.
“This is going to take three, four or five years for him to become what we think he can become,” Slater said. “Ideally he becomes Shin-Soo Choo (who left South Korea as an amateur and played 16 years in the majors) or someone like that, an impact major-league player.
“Our scouts really believed in him. Moises believed in him. I believed in him. We’re going to see where this goes.”
Cho’s earliest baseball experiences in South Korea came as a pitcher. When he was 16, he thought a better career path would be as a hitter.
The only problem was that Cho wasn’t in the type of physical shape he needed to be in to play every day in the outfield. For the first time in his life he started to lift weights. He began running a lot and changed his diet.
Over a three-to-four month span, Cho lost about 40 pounds.
“I moved to a new school and in the transition had a new mindset,” Cho said through his team-appointed interpreter, James Bae. “I first thought with this body I can’t play good enough baseball. That was the moment I wanted to be dedicated to baseball.”
The power showcase in Texas cemented Cho’s desire to pursue a career in the U.S.
“I was so determined, it wasn’t a difficult decision (to leave Korea),”Cho said.
The hardest part, Cho said, was waiting to actually sign the contract with the Cardinals – and watching his friends getting selected in the KBO draft.
“Mentally it was the most challenging (time),” Cho said. “I didn’t doubt my ability, but it was challenging to see my friends going to the pro teams (in Korea) and I was just waiting. That was the hardest part.”
Now that Cho is in Florida wearing a Cardinals uniform, however, that worry has passed – and now he is concentrating every day on improving his skills.
He is facing pitchers who throw faster than those he faced in South Korea. He is playing with and against older players, and even players his same age who have played in a lot more games, against better competition, than has faced.
“The players here throw harder and are bigger and stronger,” Cho said. “When I go to the plate, it makes me a little more excited. I am looking forward to the experiences I am going to get.”
Cho already has realized one important factor about his own performance, something it often takes young players more than a month in spring training to understand. It speaks to his knowledge and appreciation of the game.
“The thing I have to keep in mind is that the results of at-bats can’t always be good,” he said. “I always have to keep in mind to do what I can do and control what I can control. I have to focus on that and stick to the basics.”
He is working on developing his English skills, going to Bae’s hotel room every night to work on understanding expressions. He knows learning the language better will help both on and off-the-field. It is the continuation of work that Cho started with Lee.
When spring training ends next week, Cho will remain in Jupiter to begin participating in the extended spring program, filled with young players, and then he is scheduled to join the rookie Complex League team when that season begins in July.
“I am planning on the long term,” Cho said. “I want to take it one step at a time. I just need to get as many at-bats as possible.”
The Cardinals will give Cho the time to do that.
“We’re going to take it slow with him,” Slater said. “He would be going through the 2022 draft if he was in the U.S. He will decide the pace. He is going to have a lot of support.”
Said Lee, “The Cardinals signed a five-tool player with very high drive and motivation. A lot of the tools are there. He just needs time to refine them.”
Photos courtesy of Yinie Kasuya, Han Lee, St. Louis Cardinals
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains