I met Sungwoo in person at a massive tailgate party at the K. Swarms of people gathered to give him a warm greeting before his first Royals game. Sungwoo graciously gave interviews for each TV and radio station and honored every selfie request. In the middle of one interview someone shouted out, “Sungwoo!” and he just laughed and worked it in to his reply.
“I love the Midwestern kindness,” he said with a genuine smile.
When there was a lull in the interview requests, Sungwoo walked my direction. I gave him a copy of Catch and Release. As I was writing the book, Sungwoo sent me multiple encouraging messages to keep telling good stories. He then asked if I could join him at Monday’s game.
“I like your baseball stories and I like your good attitude. I want you to be my catcher as a birthday gift.”
My heart skipped a beat. I literally couldn’t sleep Sunday night.
On that Monday in August 2014, Sungwoo and I played catch in the parking lot and in the tunnels and watched batting practice on the field and sat in the dugout and shared stories and heard announcer Mike McCartney say our names on the stadium sound system. I squatted down where Porter and Wathan and Sundberg and Macfarlane and Mayne and Salvy and Butera had all played ball. The night ended with Jarrod Dyson’s backflip in centerfield, Sungwoo hanging the W above the Hall of Fame, and the Royals in first place. It was an unforgettable experience, truly beyond words, even if Dad and I had to drive back to Springfield after the game.
The next morning, Mark (Day #163) called me.
“They were just talking about you on the radio!” he said unable to control his laughter.
He then told me how the sports radio DJs couldn’t believe Sungwoo had picked “some random guy from the parking lot” to catch his first pitch. By the time he finished telling the story, we were both laughing pretty hard.
Mark hosted a thoroughly filling and fun tailgate before last night’s game, inviting strangers to dine with us and enjoy the pre-game festivities. After the game, he opened up his house for me and Dad — his own Baseball Bed & Breakfast. He escorted us to the WHB 810 studios where I’d be playing catch with Nate who gets paid to talk about sports.
I asked Nate if he remembered the Sungwoo story.
“Usually a current player catches the first pitch and it’s a pretty big deal,” he said grinning.
I nodded. I’ve had numerous conversations about who I would like to catch my first pitch if I ever get the opportunity.
Just a couple years younger than me, Nate played second base at Bishop Ward High School and I immediately resonated with his late-blooming story. Neither one of us were winners in the genetic lottery. We both have better arms now than we did during our playing days. However, Nate had an MLB player and friend who used to come watch his games, Toronto Blue Jays’ Kelly Gruber. His presence surely added a little pressure for Nate to perform well on the field, but it makes for a great story 20 years later.
I couldn’t help but notice his Wilson glove — a beautiful A2000 infielder’s mitt — and loved the random, serendipitous story of how it came to be his. His Jim Eisenreich home run derby story is equally awesome. It’s only been a couple weeks since Nate last used his glove in a game of catch.
“Summer ball just ended and I played catch with my son before every game.”
Of course, I attempted to throw a couple knuckleballs. They were absolutely perfect if the desired result was a pitch that could turn into a 500-foot blast.
“Trey Hillman has a great knuckleball,” Nate said.
When Nate was an on-field reporter for MLB Network, the former Royals manager pulled him aside and tossed him a glove saying he didn’t think Nate could catch his knuckleball.
“We were on the first base line while the Royals were taking BP. I did catch all of them, but they had really good movement.”
When I lived in KC, I enjoyed listening to Nate on the radio because he was a positive, hopeful voice and told good stories. So many sports journalists grow bitter and cynical following a decade of dismal play. Even during those difficult seasons, Nate did a great job of putting the team and the game into perspective.
“You don’t go into this job for fame or money. It’s all about the people and the importance of relationships. That’s true for all of life, not just on the job. And never burn any bridges. No matter how much you might feel slighted or wronged, never burn any bridges. In fact, when you’ve been treated unfairly, do the opposite. The positive comes back around. That’s true for all of life, too.”
Nate is now the play-by-play voice for the Sporting KC soccer team. The dream he’s chasing is epic.
“In eight years, when the US is hosting the World Cup, I want to be one of the announcers calling the matches.”
Kansas City is a legitimate contender to serve as a host city for the World Cup. Nate would do an excellent job not only as a knowledgeable and passionate announcer, but also as an ambassador and representative of our country through the sport.
As Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”
Soccer, like baseball, brings the world together.
Side Note: I wore my Long Ball City Pine Tar t-shirt for today’s catch. I still remember watching that game with Dad 35 years ago! President Trump is in KC today and I saw him shaking George Brett’s hand at the airport on TV. I can only assume he’s in town to help commemorate the historic game.