AT&T PARK — Some three hours before Jae-gyun Hwang sent a towering home run into the left-field bleachers during his major-league debut, the 29-year-old Korean star was sitting in the San Francisco Giants home dugout with a semi-circle of reporters and TV cameras surrounding him. A big smile beamed across his face.
Hwang, whose contract was officially purchased from the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats on Wednesday morning, had spent the first three months of the season in less-than-glamorous fashion, bouncing from one minor-league city to the next.
“It was a special experience, for sure, in many ways,” Hwang said via his translator Mark Kim. “I hope that I won’t have to visit some of those cities again.”
After initially signing a minor-league deal with the Giants in the offseason, Hwang went on to hit .287 in 68 Triple-A games. Hwang split his time between third base and first — save for a two-game experiment in left field.
Making the leap across the Pacific Ocean — and leaving behind his successful career in the Korean Baseball Organization — wasn’t an easy move to make.
“I’ve given up a lot back home — money, being away from family, my career, everything — just to be here,” Hwang explained. “The only reason I did that was because I wanted to realize my childhood dream of playing a game in the big leagues.
“This opportunity came almost unexpectedly and so suddenly,” Hwang added. “But I’m really hoping that I carry this excitement over to the field and capitalize on this opportunity.”
During his time in Sacramento, Hwang watched a parade of River Cats promoted over him — most notably fellow third basemen Christian Arroyo and Ryder Jones.
Initially, seeing his teammates move up to San Francisco buoyed Hwang’s confidence. The right-handed hitter reasoned that if his colleagues were major-league worthy, so too was he.
But the season dragged on and the call didn’t come.
Ultimately, his bat and the calendar forced the issue.
Hwang hit .324 with a .982 OPS in 22 June games and he could have opted out of his contract had the Giants not summoned him by July 1. Asked if he would have utilized his opt out, as had been reported, Hwang insisted he’d never made a final decision.
Either way, his strong month and the power of his contractual leverage was enough to facilitate his rise to AT&T Park.
His new manager Bruce Bochy was thrilled for Hwang, appreciating that the KBO veteran’s journey began long before his three-month tour of the PCL.
“He was all smiles,” Bochy said. “And I knew it would be a special moment with what he’s been through and the sacrifices he’s made to come over here and try to make it up to the major leagues. It’s good to see him.”
Bochy could sense the energy in the dugout as soon as Hwang’s sixth-inning homer soared beyond the left-field wall.
“They were so excited for him, happy for him,” Bochy said. “They all know what he’s been through — giving up baseball in Korea to come here and try to make it to the major leagues. He reaches his dream of playing here and hits a home run — a huge home run to go with that.”
“Guys have a lot of fun with him. He’s very popular in that clubhouse,” Bochy added.
Hwang is also one of the most popular players in his native country, and easily could have remained with the Lotte Giants where he hit 53 homers over the past two seasons and became a YouTube hero for his epic bat flips.
Instead, Hwang took the risk and signed up to play in San Francisco. He finally made it right around midnight on Tuesday, just as Denard Span was walking off the Giants in the 14th inning.
On Wednesday morning, as Hwang held court in the dugout, the true impact of his decision could be felt half a world away in Korea.
“The moment the announcement of my call-up was announced, I obviously got a lot of calls,” Hwang.
He put in a video call to his parents, who were on the verge of tears when he revealed the news. The news also shook his home nation.
“If you look at any of the Korean media streams, all the search words were “Jae-Gyun Hwang,” the newest Giant explained.
Back in Korea, the 12:45 p.m. first pitch translated to a 4:45 a.m. wakeup call. When he launched his home run some three hours later, most of Korea was eating breakfast.
“They had to switch up all the channels and all the programming just to be able to broadcast this game live,” Hwang explained. “So, I think it means a lot to the fans back home.”