Korean Slugger's Take on African American Pitcher Shows Racial Insensitivity

A slugger of the Korean Baseball Organization’s (KBO) Hanhwa Eagles apologized Monday evening for a racially-tinged comment about Shane Youman of the Lotte Giants after online criticism turned the offense into a hot topic of online discussion.

On Monday morning the host of the Naver radio sports show “Radio Ball” had quoted Kim Tae-kyun of the Eagles as saying, “Youman’s face is so dark and his teeth are so white and that makes it really hard to hit the ball,” according to the local daily Osen.

In response to the flurry of online criticism inspired by the report, the Naver show tried to place the comment in context, saying that Kim hadn’t meant it as a racial slur.

Kim’s own explanation of the comment as having been intended to be a compliment of the 33-year-old Youman suggests a surprising lack of racial sensitivity in an era when foreign-born people make up about 2% of the nation’s 50 million residents.

“What I tried to say when answering a question by a baseball reporter was that Youman’s pitching form is so excellent that the batters have a hard time to face him, but it seems to have been misunderstood,” he said.

“As I had [played for a] time as a foreign player in Japan, I know better than anybody else how difficult life as a foreign player could be.”

Kim, who played for the Chiba Lotte Marines between 2010 and 2011, said he maintains good relationships with the KBO’s foreign players, including Denny Bautista, 32, the Eagles’ own African-American pitcher. The KBO currently includes 19 foreign players. All are pitchers.

“As a public figure, I will try to be more prudent and get closer to fans,” Kim added in a statement released by the Eagles Monday night. “Regardless of the truth or false of the matter, I give my apology to Youman of Lotte.”

Prior to the release of the apology, an Eagles official told JoongAng Daily that Kim was embarrassed about the controversy and would check to see whether he made the remark and why.

“How would people react if somebody says that Choo Shin-soo is so yellow that it is hard to notice the moment that he swings the bat?” said one online critic prior to the apology.

Others pointed out that comments like Kim’s would amount to the kind of racial slur that could end a player’s career in American Major League Baseball. Many urged Korean athletes to be as sensitive to racial remarks toward foreign players as Korean fans are to racial remarks directed at Korean players.

The Giants have yet to comment on the controversy. On Monday a Giants official seemed to downplay the likelihood that Kim’s remark was intended as a racial slur, telling JoongAng Daily that the team wasn’t sure whether even to discuss the controversy with Youman.

Unless Youman is peculiarly aloof from his Korean surroundings, however, it seems unlikely that he would remain unaware of the furor over Kim’s comments, especially now that the nation’s social commentators are using the incident as a prime example of the need for Koreans to become more racially sensitive in their increasingly multicultural society.