Life in Korea Through the Eyes of a Foreign Pro Athlete: Ryan Sadowski (NEH Magazine)

The following article appeared as the cover story for the “His” side of NEH Magazine’s October His/Her Issue.

Life in Korea Through the Eyes of a Foreign Pro Athlete

Unconventional. Humorous. Dedicated. Honest. Foreigner. Meet Ryan Sadowski.

Being able to experience life in Korea through a foreigner’s eyes is not new. The blogoshpere is over-run with good and bad examples. Same goes for internet videos. Your favorite search engine will reveal a multitude of online resources, and a quick visit to an English bookstore will provide what you need in print.

The vast majority of foreigners documenting their experiences in Korea online are English Instructors. Apart from them, you can find a handful of business types, perhaps some engineers, as well as a select few that have moved on from teaching into successful earning opportunities in entertainment media like TV and radio. Chances are however, unless you are familiar with Ryan Sadowski, you haven’t experienced life in Korea through the eyes of a foreign professional athlete.

Sadowski is an American right handed starting pitcher for the Lotte Giants. We spent some time with him in Gangnam before a late summer pre-playoff Saturday game at Jamsil Stadium during an away stretch against the LG Twins. Part of what I learned during our two hours together is that although he and the Lotte Giants call Busan their home, he’s got a ridiculous amount of fans in Seoul. Horns honked and hollers of “Sa-Do-Seu-Ki” came at us from all directions. Our urban guerilla photography session was frequently interrupted so he could pose for pictures and shake hands with his fans. Lucky for those fans, from the moment he set foot in Korea, Sadowski has been documenting his life by sharing videos online.

Pay a visit to YouTube and look up his channel titled “incugator”. There you will find hundreds of videos offering a glimpse at foreigner life in Korea for someone not only without an E-2 visa, but from an athlete of the highest caliber. You witness English speaking athletes struggling to learn their Korean teammate’s names because of the confusing Romanization of Hangul. What it’s like to watch a Lotte game from the stands. Examples of Konglish, mixed Korean and English words that most Westerners find humorous. Interviews with Lotte Giants fans and sports broadcasters from around the world. Eating strange burgers in a Japanese McDonalds. Not to mention plenty of joking with his teammates on the bus, in the club house and at dinner. It’s not all about baseball as he tackles subjects like being respectful on the subway, and gives attention to strange public situations you find yourself in as a foreigner living in this Confucian society.

His sense of humor is front and center, enhanced by quick cuts, monologues and the strategic use of slow motion. The music selections are carefully considered, perfectly matching either the tone or the theme of the segment. Most of the videos conclude with Sadowski recapping the week’s events and signing off using his Korean speaking skills (which are pretty good), followed by the list of credits which includes the people that made appearances and the songs that were used.

I asked Sadowski how the video hobby began. “The inspiration behind starting the videos two years ago was to send my wife and family videos of what was going on. I didn’t realize that Lotte fans were going to find me in about two days.” Next, he shared how quickly they took off. “I looked at my fourth video and it got 1,000 hits in two days, and I thought something’s not right. My mom’s not watching the same video a 1,000 times. Then I realized the fans were watching, so I kind of just made it a foreigner’s perspective on Korea.”

Perspective was a common theme during our conversation. It came up as we discussed his thoughts on the actions of other foreigners in Korea, the relationships he has forged with his teammates, why he often reverts to joking around with his fans, as well as why so many Koreans have enjoyed his Western approach to documenting an athlete’s life in Korea. Perspective was also given as a possible reason for why he was asked by the Lotte Giants organization to stop making the videos last June. Just where does his perspective come from? Sadowski’s story is one of hard work, positive attitude and an unconventional approach to not only the game of baseball, but the game of life.

Sadowski grew up in Miami where he had a very successful high school baseball career. He wound up a Gator at the University of Florida (UF). Unfortunately, he wasn’t given the chance to pitch as much as he would have liked. “My first year at UF I had Tommy John surgery, which everyone is pretty familiar with now, where you have your right elbow reconstructed.” He returned his second year to an all new coaching staff that had made a lot of changes, including an overhaul of the roster. However, begrudgingly Sadowski says, “They didn’t get rid of me. I wish they would have because I was kind of locked in, stuck at the University of Florida.”

Regarding the end of his University experience and preparation for the draft, he goes on to say, “I played in a summer league the previous year, a collegiate summer league, and I pitched really well. I was really close to graduating so I didn’t want to transfer schools because I would have lost credits.” Being basically forced to finish college ball at UF, where he got little time on the mound, could have been worse. He’s quick to point out, “I graduated, so I got something good out of it.”

It’s fair to say that at the time of his departure from UF, Sadowski was in a not-so-ideal situation for getting drafted into the big leagues. Giving up is not in his nature, though. Instead, he would throw the scouts a curveball — his mom. As Sadowski tells the story, “I told my mom, ‘We gotta do something to get people’s attention’, so I said, ‘why don’t you call front offices [of Major League ball clubs], and say somebody [a scout] needs to talk to me.’ I got a few return phone calls, and then from there these scouts got to see me pitch, and word spread. All of a sudden I’m throwing in front of 20-30 scouts about two weeks before the draft.”

This out-of-left-field approach paid off. “I got drafted in the 12th round by the [San Francisco] Giants, which in the Major League draft there are 50 rounds, so to get drafted in the 12th round without really playing in college, I was really pleased with that.”

After a rather lengthy career in the minors he found his way to the big leagues, as a starting pitcher in the rotation for the San Francisco Giants. He won his first two starts, accumulating thirteen consecutive shutout innings in the process. However, Sadowski would go on to drop his next four. At the end of the season he found himself testing the market as a free agent. After careful consideration of his future, he signed with the Lotte Giants for the 2010 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season. San Francisco Giants coach Dave Righetti, well known for his illustrious career in Major League Baseball (MLB) as well as his nickname “Rags”, played an active role in helping him choose where to play.

At the time, Jerry Royster was the manager of Lotte, also well known for his MLB playing and coaching experience. “Rags is good friends with Jerry. And when I became a free agent, my name was kind of floating around.” Connecting the dots, he tells me, “I respected Rags’ opinion a lot. So when Jerry told me that Rags recommended me to do this, I said, ‘You know what, let’s go with it, let’s see where it takes me.’ I’m in my second year now and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Sadowski and I talked differences between baseball in Korea and at home. “It’s funny”, he says, “My response before was, it’s the same game, it’s just a little different. But now, I don’t even call it baseball, I call it yagu. It’s not baseball, it’s yagu because the game requires the same skill set, they’re played very, very differently. The rules every once and a while, I go, ‘Really?’

He provided many examples. In Korea, if a player catches the ball and falls in the stands, it’s considered a dead ball. At home, the ball is live and the player can throw it back in. Also, there are differences in how the players interact with the umpires. At home, in an attempt to learn the strike zone, it’s normal to ask the umpire where he had the pitch. In Korea, they get very angry. There are also differences in the club house. On the road, you don’t shower there, you go back to your hotel in uniform. On the topic of food in the club house he says, “When you eat, it’s a meal, rather than in The States you could go in and grab a snack. Everything that you eat here is for real.”

Still on the topic of rules, I asked about something I saw in video #64, titled Bench clearing almost brawl. “It was last year when Karim Garcia was with us. And this is a great example of the differences. The catcher blocks home plate. The base runner is supposed to run straight through the plate, so that catcher is supposed to give the runner a base line and tag so he doesn’t get killed.”

That’s how the game is played back home. In Korea, he explains it’s a little different. “But here, guys will slide right into the catcher, which is really dangerous for the base runner because the catcher has got all of his gear on, and usually the catcher is a pretty big guy. So it’s different, they don’t do that, even if they go in without sliding, it’s not like they are trying to do anything too violent. Whereas in The States, they’re gonna blow you up. Karim ended up doing that and everyone made a huge deal out of it. And I was like, ‘What, what did he do?’”

The result was what he calls the “Bench clearing almost brawl”. Both benches cleared, as if they were gearing up for a fight, but ultimately, nothing happened.

I asked him about his teammates, to which he responded, “I’ve got a great team. I mean, I’ve heard other foreigners say certain things about their teammates, but I really have great teammates.” He also gave advice on how to be a good teammate by saying, “I’ve tried to accommodate too, I’ve tried to be open and express how I feel, and they’ve done the same. When I show up I feel comfortable. That’s the biggest thing. I say that a lot when I talk to Korean reporters. I try to make myself as comfortable as possible.”

Sadowski shared opinions on how foreigners should represent themselves in Korea. We discussed the subject matter of video #234, Foreigners on the subway. “I always consider myself a guest here. It’s the same thing you’d do in The States. Treat people like you’d want to be treated. You don’t want to go into a place and make a scene. Especially when you look and talk different.” Sadowski continues, “Be a guest, you’re always a guest when you’re here. And they’re pretty cordial hosts, so don’t take advantage of it.”

Back on the subject of his YouTube channel, I asked Sadowski why he thinks he was asked by the Lotte Giants organization to stop making the videos. “It’s a tough, tough thing to answer. But I think some people don’t, especially in Korean culture, and it’s the same thing in The States too, they don’t like change. They don’t like seeing sometimes the truth. Whether it be fun, whether it be negative, they just don’t like to admit that this is the way it’s done. They say, ‘we don’t really do it that way do we?’

The featured video on his channel right now, and the most recent production, is all in text. In English and Korean, he explains to his YouTube fans that there will be no more videos for the time being. Not fully understanding the power of social media in Korea, Sadowski says that events have transpired and in the best interests of all parties concerned, he will no longer be posting the weekly videos. In classic Sadowski humor, the soundtrack to the video is the song “It’s Okay” by Nell. Among other subject appropriate lyrics, some of the lines to the song, translated into English, mean:

I’m happy that we even had those kinds of memories.
I understand.
That’s what’s hurting me.
Love’s no sympathy.

Watch for yourself to get the full gist of it.

To close out our interview, I asked how he felt about being asked to stop. “I didn’t want to cause any controversy doing it. I was just doing it for fun. So when it became a question of offending or insulting people, I didn’t want to get into that. I’m just trying to have fun and show a different perspective. Maybe it bit me in the butt a little bit.”

For updates on Ryan Sadowski follow @incugator on Twitter. Also, he says he will be making some collage videos when he’s back in the states, so add the “incugator” channel to your favorites on YouTube.

Lastly, just where does the name incugator come from?

“It’s just a play on words. It sounds like the word incubator, which really doesn’t have anything to do with it. But my favorite music is by a band called Incubus. I listen to Incubus a lot, and when I was in college I was a Gator [at UF] , so I was like incugator, it sounds like another English word.”

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on October 26, 2011.

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