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Orioles' Hyun Soo Kim becomes 'one of the guys' off the field

Orioles' Hyun Soo Kim becomes 'one of the guys' off the field
Orioles outfielders Hyun Soo Kim, from left, of South Korea, Adam Jones and Joey Rickard bow after a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Baltimore, Saturday, July 9, 2016. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Every day, after his early hitting routine and a peek at a lineup card that didn't include his name, Hyun Soo Kim cut a sad figure walking around the edges of the Orioles' clubhouse at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla.

The Orioles' spring training home had become a place of great professional frustration for the South Korean outfielder. Amid a week of reports about his future with the team, the players would ask a question that the language barrier prevented them from asking the man himself: What's happening with Kim?

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Three months later, they know. He tells them.

The reversal of his baseball fortunes, and his progress with English, have brought forth the man whom manager Buck Showalter had been told would fit right into his veteran clubhouse — industrious, sure, but equally able to provide a laugh at a teammate's or his own expense.

"He's a smart guy, and doesn't take himself too seriously, which has played really well in our clubhouse," Showalter said.

It was hard to tell that much back in Florida, where Kim wore the weight of expectation and the pressure of a nation on his face every day. His teammates mostly went about their business, though they'd read enough to know Kim was being put in a miserable situation by the organization.

Eventually, it was hard to deny the baseball strides he'd made, and he became a more regular part of the team. That went for how he fit into the team in the clubhouse, as well.

"Once we kind of got into the flow of the regular season and some of the constant attention was shifted a little bit away from there, maybe a couple weeks into the season, he started kind of doing his thing," outfielder Mark Trumbo said.

Kim started to play more often — and became one of the team leaders in hitting — around the time his wife joined him from Korea. He's found some Korean haunts around the city and its surrounding suburbs, scoping out the best restaurants.

Teammates, on the road, have gotten to see him in that element, too. Fellow outfielder Joey Rickard, whose own playing time has been impacted by Kim's, said Kim has made a habit of taking his teammates out for Korean barbecue when they're on the road. Kim solicits advice from fellow Koreans in the majors, then shares the experience with the teammates who have become so good at making him feel a part of things.

"He's a comedian," Rickard said. "It's no secret now. He's always joking around. We'll go out to eat … and you can tell he's a little more of a jokester. I don't know what they're saying, but they're having a good time. It's fun to be around."

Kim, through interpreter Danny Lee, said moments like those dinners were "very precious."

"The acclimation is not just me, but also from the team, too," Kim said. "They had to get used to me, who they had never seen before, and I also needed to make adjustments to the team because new things are always hard to make adjustments. So I kind of expected, before I came to the States, that I needed to overcome those obstacles that I would be facing."

The main obstacle is the language barrier. On the weekend before the All-Star break, he sat stoic during a game of ping-pong between Lee and outfielder Mark Trumbo, right in front of his locker. When the two couldn't agree on the score, Kim cleared it up, in English: "9-7."

When Lee wore a bow tie as a gag during a post-game press conference earlier this month, Kim was asked in English afterward what he thought of it. He understood enough to derisively call it "cute" in his native language.

"He's one of the guys, and that's only going to get better as his English gets better," Trumbo said. "He surprises us on a daily basis with a new word or phrase that he'll just slide it in there pretty casually. Usually it's baseball terminology. Giving examples wouldn't make it probably all that impressive, but to us it is because it just shows an effort. He's making a concerted effort to be one of the guys and with a little more time, we'll probably be able to have full conversations by the end of the year."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Jake Lourim contributed to this story.

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