Things seemingly tend to get lost in translation when Ji Hwan Bae’s answers to the media’s questions are turned from Korean into English.
Perhaps it is because the Pittsburgh Pirates rookie infielder/outfielder is still making the transition to the major leagues. Or it could be that the translator is still getting used to baseball terminology.
Hopefully, it’s not parroting the case of former Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang, who was also from South Korea.
I had a delightfully candid interview with Kang and his translator in 2015 during his first spring training with the Pirates.
I asked Kang what he liked most about the United States in the limited time he had been in this country. He gave one of the most honest answers I’ve received in 36 years of covering the Pirates and Major League Baseball.
“Cheeseburgers and American women,” Kang said with a big smile.
Pirates management – which since has been replaced – reportedly was apoplectic about that quote. Kang had a new translator when the regular season started and his answer to any question asked after that was always some variation of “I’m just here to help the team win.”
I get the feeling Bae has a lot more to say, too.
I asked the 23-year-old after the season opener last Thursday how he felt about getting two hits and scoring the winning run following a stolen base as the Pirates beat the Reds 5-4 at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Bae’s translated answer: “The first day is always happy.”
OK, it probably wasn’t the most insightful question I have ever asked. However, he certainly had to be a little happier than that.
One thing not lost in translation, though, is Bae’s game-changing speed. It is clear the Pirates plan to take advantage of it during a season where rule changes such as limited pickoff throws and bigger bases are designed to return more emphasis to stolen bases and baserunning in general.
Bae started all three games of the series in Cincinnati that ended Sunday, twice at second base and once at center field. That registers as at least a bit of a surprise as Bae was expected by many observers to be the Pirates’ top utility player this season while Rodolfo Castro was the regular second baseman and Jack Suwinski got the bulk of the starts in center field.
Bae has gone 2 for 10 in the small sample size. However, he stole a pair of bases in the opener with one in particular proving pivotal.
With the score tied 4-4 in the top of the eighth inning, Bae singled. He then stole second base, moved to third on Austin Hedges’ sacrifice bunt and scored what turned out to be the running run on Oneil Cruz’s sacrifice fly.
Bae’s other hit in the opener was a bunt single.
As former Pirates center fielder Jarrod Dyson liked to say, “that’s what speed do.”
Bae isn’t as highly regarded as some of the Pirates’ other prospects. Baseball America has him at No. 12 in their organization rankings.
Bae has a bit of checkered past, too.
He originally signed as an amateur free agent with the Braves, but the contract was voided because of improprieties that led to a lifetime ban of Atlanta general manager John Coppolella by Major League Baseball.
Bae was also suspended for 30 games in 2019 for violating MLB’s domestic abuse policy. A South Korean court convicted him of assaulting his then-girlfriend at a New Year’s Eve party in 2017.
Perhaps that also factors into why he has little to say in interviews.
However, this much is certain – Bae is getting a chance to show he can be an everyday player and part of the Pirates’ future. And his speed makes Bae a fun player to watch.