BUSAN, South Korea — His bat was deemed unnecessary, his rifle of an arm inconsequential. And with that, ex-Lotte Giant baseball All Star, Karim Garcia, was unceremoniously let go by the team after their first round playoff loss last fall.
The Lotte Giants decided their high octane, league-leading offense would be just fine without Garcia, and focused on their pitching woes. In addition, with Garcia's biggest supporter, manager Jerry Royster, also being replaced, Garcia's fate was all but sealed and he headed back home to Mexico.
"It really wasn't a surprise," Garcia, who has since returned to Korean baseball with Daejon-based club Hanwha, said of his dismissal. "We changed managers and the new manager wanted to bring in two foreign pitchers. He wanted his own guys. It really wasn't a big deal to me."
Garcia’s release also came as no shock to the league's first foreign manager, Jerry Royster.
"It wasn't a surprise to me that Lotte didn't re-sign him,” he said. “They didn't want him back for a third year in 2010, much less 2011.”
What the Lotte brain trust and first time big league manager, Yang Seung-ho failed to take into consideration was Garcia's intangibles.
During Garcia's tenure manning right field for Lotte, he became one of the most beloved sports figures in Busan. His willingness and patience to please the public and promote the Lotte Giant brand was instrumental in the team’s rise in popularity, and the fact that they didn't re-sign Garcia caused a public relations backlash that was felt throughout the stands at Sajik Stadium.
"Obviously he is still a great talent that could help any team in the KBO,” said Royster. “Karim's contributions to the KBO should be measured both on the field and in the stands. People pay to see him hit homers and make flashy catches, but he has shown the league the importance of player fan interaction."
Garcia also acknowledges the importance of fan interaction.
"A lot of players do not like signing autographs and taking pictures," said Garcia. “I do it. I want to give back a little from what I have gotten from baseball. It is important for me to give back."
Adding fuel to the ongoing fan-fire was Lotte's decision to recently release Garcia's foreign replacement, pitcher Brian Corey, after management completely misused him during the first half of the season.
Don't call it a comeback, I've been here before
Fast-forward to June of this year and #95 was back – a familiar face in different cloth. Garcia signed with the Hanwha Eagles, and he returned to Korea like a storm ready to inflict damage.
"Karim Garcia's much anticipated return to the KBO and Hanwha in June started out with a bang," said Dan Kurtz, founder of MyKBO.net based in Pittsburgh, who has covered the league for eight years. "He had a few grand slams, a walk-off homerun, and he capped off the month with two 3-run blasts in a game against SK. This was enough to earn Garcia player of the month honors for June."
Ex-teammates were also excited to see him return to Korean baseball.
"Garcia came back to Korea again, and both the players and fans feel happy," said Lotte reliever Bae Jang-ho. "Unfortunately though, he's not on the same team. Personally, to be able to see him again is great, and the fans love it, too."
Playing against his old team was a strange experience for Garcia.
"At first, it was weird going to a different dugout, but it was great for me to be back in Busan for my first game."
Lotte held a brief ceremony before the game for Garcia, and the fans welcomed him with a rousing ovation, that continues every time he steps on the field at Sajik.
"It was very touching, sentimental. It was nice," he said.
After the blazing start Garcia has cooled a bit, but his power numbers remain. He has already hit 11 homers and has 35 RBIs in 117 at bats since his return.
For Garcia, who was playing in Mexico before signing with the Eagles, the decision to return was an easy one.
"I wanted a second opportunity," he said. "I have unfinished business."
The 35-year-old Garcia is nearing the century mark in home runs hit in the KBO, and is hopeful he can continue to play professionally until he is 40. However, he is taking nothing for granted as he plays in his 16th season as a professional.
"Obviously, you have to take it one year at a time," said Garcia. "You have to produce to be able to come back."
An era of persistence and resilience
When Garcia does eventually retire, his career might not be remembered as being textbook, but it will be remembered as an unconventional success from the start.
Garcia was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers at the age of 16 and made his pro-debut in 1995 at 19, as the youngest player in the National League. Possessing power at the plate and an excellent arm in the outfield, Garcia had no shortage of suitors offering him the opportunity to play, despite being plagued by inconsistency in his ten years in the MLB.
"I am happy with the way my career has went," he said recently. "It hasn't been perfect, but I have to take my mistakes and learn from them."
After playing for seven teams in ten years, Garcia decided to give Asia a try, and played in Japan for the 2005-06 season. After that, he made the move across the sea and joined Lotte.
He has reinvented himself while in Asia, and quickly acclimated himself into the Asian way of life. Where other players before and after him have failed, he has flourished.
"We all know how to play baseball,” Garcia said. ”You have to adapt to the game, but most importantly you have to adapt to the people and your team. I try to adapt as quickly as I can and have as much fun as I can."
While Lotte may mourn the loss of his bat at the plate, his many fans are happy to see him playing on the peninsula again.
Painting by Kelsey L. Smith