Cubs' Lee Adjusting On And Off The Field In Peoria
PEORIA, Ill.—The next time you are surfing the Internet, cruise on over to YouTube.com and search for Cubs shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee.
Take in a few highlight clips, note the smooth southpaw swing and the top-end speed, but don't surf off without viewing the video entitled "Hak-Ju Lee Serenade."
The 29-second video, taken last September at a Boise Hawks booster club meeting, features Lee crooning his way through the chorus of The Carpenters' smash hit "Superstar."
"It wasn't bad," said Lee's teammate, Logan Watkins, with a laugh. "He's really bright and he wants to learn English. Before every game, he's in the locker room listening to his iPod and then he studies the lyrics to learn the words and how to pronounce them."
The video is a prime example of a young man who is quickly gaining confidence living in a new country yet still longs for the comforts of home.
The 19-year old is learning American culture, whether it's the language, the music or even the game of baseball. At the same time, he desperately misses his native South Korea, its culture and traditions and his friends and family.
"The most challenging thing is homesickness and loneliness," Lee said through his interpreter, Dr. Chang-Ok Choi of Bradley University. "Talking by phone to friends and family back home, that helps."
As does hearing your native tongue. When Lee overheard Dr. Choi and television producer Myung Ho Chung conversing near the Chiefs dugout prior to a recent home game, one could see him relax and ease into conversation.
"Last year, when I was in Boise, there wasn't much Korean community to speak of," Lee said. "It was just me and my interepreter and we became close friends, but that was it."
The 2010 season has taken him to Peoria of the low Class A Midwest League, which, while better than Boise, still doesn't have much of a Korean connection. According to the most recent census, just 2.5 percent of Peoria's 113,000 residents are Asian—most of them Chinese and Japanese.
But the city's small Korean population is doing its best to make Lee and his countryman, Chiefs righthander Su-Min Jung, feel at home.
"For example, I know that the people at the Korean Presbyterian Church are taking turns coming out to games and making sure they have a cheering section," Dr. Choi said. "And we've invited them to our weekly luncheon after Sunday services because we usually serve Korean food and it's always nice to get a taste of home."
Easy Does It
But Lee hasn't let his homesickness slow him down. In 2009 at short-season Boise, Lee hit .330 with 14 doubles, 33 RBIs and 25 steals; earning him the No. 6 ranking among the Cubs top prospects after the season.
"His biggest asset is his speed, but he also controls the bat well," first-year Chiefs manager Casey Kopitzke said. "If he hits the ball in the hole, there's a good chance he's going to beat it out.
"And even though you don't see it much now, he's got the ability to pull the ball and hit for power, which I think you'll see more of as he matures."
Even higher praise is reserved for Lee's work in the field.
"He makes everything look so easy," Cubs vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita said.
Kopitzke echoed the sentiment.
"He does things that a lot of other guys can't do," Kopitzke said. "He's got the ability to go to both sides, whether it's in the hole or behind the bag, and make plays that you don't see every day."
Ranked right behind Lee on BA's list of the Cubs' top prospects is Chiefs second baseman Logan Watkins, who also played with Lee last year at Boise. Normally in the minors, having two prospects at similar positions would make for intense competition. Instead, Lee and Watkins have forged a close bond.
"When I first came (to the United States), I was kind of lost with the language and skills and things like that," Lee said. "When I was down, Logan was always encouraging me, so naturally we became close."
The Odd Couple
It is an usual pairing to say the least: a white kid from Wichita and a South Korean, both middle infielders, both still shy of their 21st birthdays. Watkins, the Cubs' 21st round pick in the 2008 draft, became Lee's guide to American culture, introducing him to American food and music. The baseball came naturally.
"The language of baseball is pretty universal," said Kopitzke, who also managed the duo in Boise last season. "Even if you can't find the words, there are certain gestures that can communicate the same meaning.
"It's fun because they communicate so well. They've played together for a while now and they are very comfortable with each other's styles."
Such lofty status might make one think both players are headed up the ladder in short order. The Cubs' system, however, boasts some of the top middle-infield prospects in the game. In fact, five of the Cubs' top 10 prospects—including top prospect Starlin Castro—were shortstops.
"It's been a strength of ours," Fleita said. "It's a credit to (scouting director) Tim Wilken and his staff for finding us so many good infielders.
"It gives (general manager) Jim Hendry ammunition for down the road, but, more importantly, it gives us a chance to develop the middle of the Cubs' infield for a long time."
The challenge of standing out doesn't daunt Lee or Watkins.
"It's a competition, but we're all good friends, so it's a good competition," Lee said. "Everybody wants to be a Cub, but it's out of my control.
"I just try to do my best for the team and the higher-ups will decide the rest."
Ben Diggle is a freelance writer based in Peoria