DURHAM — During his first year in America, Hak-Ju Lee said he called home to South Korea just about every day, asking for help with the language – help with everything, really.
“I need a translator,” Lee, the Durham Bulls’ shortstop, said he told his parents then. “You know, ‘What’s going on (here) – I don’t know.’ But right now, this is my sixth year.”
Lee, sitting last week in the Bulls’ dugout after batting practice, smiled and spoke with confidence – no translator needed. Six years after arriving in America, he’s at the precipice of achieving the American dream – at least the one shared by countless American boys.
Lee, the Rays’ No. 2 prospect, is a call-up away from making his major league debut with the Tampa Bay Rays. That call-up could come this season if he shows he’s fully recovered from the knee injury that ended his season in April 2013 – one that has him wearing a brace on his left leg.
“Tough,” Lee said, describing the rehab process after tearing multiple knee ligaments amid an on-field collision. Lee suffered the injury a little more than a year ago, early in his first season with the Bulls, when Tim Beckham attempted a fancy throw that sailed on Lee and led to a collision with a player sliding into second base.
Beckham reached the big leagues last September but tore an ACL in the offseason. Lee, 6-foot-2, 170 pounds with a slick glove, seemed on track to reach the majors, too, until the injury. Now, it’s anybody’s guess when Lee might arrive.
“He’s healthy right now, which is the main thing,” Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said recently. “And now he’s got to catch up with the baseball. All of these guys have been playing the whole time but he hasn’t.”
“I just know that he’s got to catch up. So that’s what we have to take it easy with him until he gets to full strength and playing every day.”
The injury might have slowed Lee’s progress, but it didn’t dim his spirit. The minor league baseball culture has been romanticized in American culture, most notably through the movie “Bull Durham,” which glorifies the long bus trips and small-town flavor that are common in the minors.
For Lee, though, Durham might as well be in the big leagues. He’d never been to America before the Chicago Cubs signed him when he was 18 and, when he was a kid, he never dreamed he’d play baseball for a living.
“I really have fun (doing) minor league stuff, you know,” Lee said. “So, I enjoy. Especially this place, in Durham, is awesome.”
Lee said he has been impressed by American culture. His teammates have taken him around the area a bit, to Raleigh and out and about in Durham, and he said there’s a good Korean restaurant he’s heard about – the name escaped him – he wants to try. He hasn’t had North Carolina barbecue yet, though he seemed intrigued.
Improving at the plate
While Lee has soaked up the surroundings during his six years in America – there were other assignments in Boise, Idaho, Peoria, Ill., and Montgomery, Ala. – he has also proven why the Cubs, who later traded Lee to the Rays, gave him a signing bonus greater than $1 million.
Lee, 23, has been considered for a while one of the best infield prospects in baseball. Baseball America ranked him as high as No. 44 overall in 2012. Known for his speed and fielding, he’s also developed into a capable hitter, a fact that seems to amuse him because he said that was the one aspect of the game that gave him the most difficulty when he first started to play when he was 12.
Last season, during his limited time with the Bulls, Lee made his name as a hitter. In 15 games before the injury, he was hitting .422 and had an OPS greater than 1.100. He also stole six bases, showing off part of the reason he has been such a highly-valued prospect.
That was among the chief concerns when Lee suffered the injury – whether he could regain his speed after surgery.
“But right now he’s running fine, which is good news,” Montoyo said. “Because that’s one of the aspects of his game – that he’s fast. That makes him even better. So if he loses that, he’s not the same.”
Footsteps to follow
Back in South Korea, Lee grew up playing soccer, though he was a fan – like a lot of people there – of Chan Ho Park, the pitcher who was the first South Korean-born player to make the major leagues. Lee grew up watching Park, and described his ascent to American prominence as “an awesome story” in South Korea.
Lee’s first experience with baseball, he said, came during a game of catch with a friend. It sparked Lee’s interest, and he became more of a fan of Park and more interested in dreaming the impossible dream of playing in America.
Now his journey has brought him to Durham, again, just one phone call from the majors. If he makes it – or when he makes it, given his continued standing as one of the Rays’ top prospects – Lee would become the 16th South Korean-born player to reach the majors, according to baseball-reference.com.
Park, who pitched for 17 seasons in the majors, began a South Korean baseball revolution of sorts, and between 1998 and 2006 12 South Koreans made their major league debuts. Since then, though, the South Korean presence has declined.
Only two South Koreans – Shin-Soo Choo and Hyun-jin Ryu – are on active rosters. Lee, then, could soon join rare company among his countrymen, half the world away from his homeland.
For now, though, Lee said, “I just want to stay healthy this year, because I didn’t play a (whole) year last year. The first thing, I just want to (be) healthy. And then the second thing, I’m a Durham Bull player now, so (I’ll) try to help the team score runs, with defense, and good base running.”
Lee’s first game back since the injury came on April 23. He said last week he was still stiff, and that he’s working his way back into form.
Years ago, when he first arrived in America, baseball but was one of many things on his mind. There was overcoming the language barrier. Adapting to a new culture. His parents came over from South Korea twice in his first two years, but he said they haven’t been back since – a sign that he has grown up.
Lee no longer needs a translator, or help understanding his surroundings. He’d like his family to come back and visit, and to see him play in Durham. If things go as planned, though, he might not be here long.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter