A year ago, South Korean outfielder Hyun Soo Kim trotted down the orange carpet on Opening Day and was greeted by catcalls, as Orioles fans booed a player they'd never seen play before.
Kim had refused the Orioles' request to go down to Triple-A Norfolk after an awful spring training, and the team was frustrated by his refusal. His contract said he couldn't be optioned without his permission, and now he was declining it.
Faced with Kim's stubbornness, manager Buck Showalter felt he had no option but to play him, but only occasionally. Through the end of May, Kim was batting .360 but played in only 18 of the Orioles' first 50 games.
Showalter played Kim much more regularly after that, and he ended his first season in the United States with a .302 average and a robust .382 OBP.
In 2016, South Korean journalists were a daily presence. But this year, they'd moved on. Kim, who is accessible but not expansive in interviews, was relieved.
"There are not a lot of differences," Kim said through his translator, Derrick Chung. "All my teammates, they've been great, just like last year. I'm more used to the routine, the culture. I was way more comfortable. I feel more comfortable than last year, but I need to work on my English more."
Kim and Chung are always together, and while the left fielder isn't necessarily a regular part of clubhouse conversations, he no longer feels like an outsider, and his teammates feel the same about him.
"He's more comfortable with us because he's been with us a year now," right-hander Dylan Bundy said. "He knows all of us personally, so as a friend, it makes it easier just being in the clubhouse with all of us and for us with him. He's done a great job coming over here, especially from a different country. It's got to be hard."
They've noticed his English has improved, too.
"You can tell he's gotten a lot better at it. He's hearing it every single day, you can hear it and practice saying it. And of course, we teach him certain words," Bundy joked.
One of the biggest changes has come in translators. Chung, a 29-year-old who played four seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization as a catcher and infielder, is a Korean-American from Southern California, who can easily guide Kim around the game.
"I just think he has a year of development, a year understanding our culture, a year understanding how we are as Americans, just getting himself comfortable here with the day-to-day life of being over here," center fielder Adam Jones said. "I know that a lot of things are still uncomfortable for him, in terms of either driving or maybe directions, simple things, day-to-day life. The baseball, when he comes here, he's very comfortable. It seems like he's gotten more and more comfortable in his skin, in the clubhouse. It's great to see."
Not long after arriving, Kim could chat simply in English, and while he needs Chung for interview requests, he's able to understand his teammates and manager.
"He's continued to grow," Showalter said. "He was under the radar once you got to know him. An interpreter is necessary, but he can function well without him. He's got great facial, body communication. Last night, I asked him what that last pitch was, and he got what I was talking about.
"He's adjusted well. I don't think, after halfway through the season, it was a challenge for him."
Kim has exhibited a sense of humor around his teammates sufficient enough so that Showalter can kid with him -- even about the Orioles' failed attempt to demote him last March, which came up when the team played Norfolk to end this year's exhibition season March 31.
"I was talking with him after he came out of the game in Norfolk, I said, ‘You could have been here. You could have played here,'" Showalter joked.
Kim is careful to not say much that could annoy either fans in his adopted country or the one he's always called home. Asked what he likes better in the U.S. than Korea, he won't bite.
"I can't really specify certain things because it's just a different culture here," Kim said. "There are things here that are nicer than Korea, but also there are things in Korea that are nicer [than] here. I just can't pick one thing that's better here."
He does readily admit he quickly developed a taste for U.S. food: crab, pasta and steak are his favorites, but he won't forget home.
"I still like Korean food better," Kim said.
Kim's biggest hit of 2016 came in Toronto Sept. 28, when he slammed a two-run home run to give the Orioles a crucial 3-2 win against the Blue Jays.
Six days later, during the Wild Card Game, a fan in the Rogers Centre left-field stands threw a beer bottle at Kim, causing Jones to scream at the crowd.
"I told him when he first got here, I got his back, no matter what," Jones said. "I know he's going to be uncomfortable because of the language barrier.
"'You're going to be the only Korean here, you're going to be the only one speaking the language, you're going to be the only one doing your own thing. Hey, you're one of my brothers. Once you put on that uniform, you're one of my brothers, and I got your back.' That incident was very unfortunate, but if it happens again, I'll be right there to have his back."
Kim and Bundy have become good friends, the South Korean and the Oklahoman.
"Every now and then, occasionally, we'll go out to dinner. He'll take us to some Korean spots in different cities we go to or we'll take him to steak places," Bundy said. "There's interaction there. We hang out off the field, too. The language isn't a problem. We've got his translator there with us. We're teaching him words, and he's teaching us things."
Bundy has wondered how he would do if he had to play baseball in South Korea. How would he communicate?
"I've thought about that," Bundy said. "That's the scary thing to think about. You go over there, and you don't speak the language that's from there, so how do you communicate with people? It's hard. Obviously, I think he's handled it great."
Kim's locker is near slugger Mark Trumbo's, and the designated hitter has enjoyed him in the clubhouse.
"I think he's understanding more than most people might think," Trumbo said. "I think the speaking part, he's working hard on. He surprises us almost every day. He'll throw a word in that you didn't expect, and he takes a lot of pride in it, too. He doesn't want to be one of the guys that relies totally on having a translator all the time. I think that's one of the biggest things is, once you start getting the language down, everything becomes a lot easier."
The second spring training went far better than the first, and the Orioles hope 2017 will feature an even more productive Kim.
"In Korea, I was always trying to be perfect, trying to have the prettiest swing, the prettiest form, but here in the U.S., I am trying to be more aggressive and not really fear mistakes," Kim said. "I'll try to be more aggressive and put more effort in not having any kind of fear."
Issue 232: April 2017