KBO’s Sadowski found a place in Cooperstown

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Bill Francis

Ryan Sadowski knows about playing baseball in South Korea, the former big league hurler having taken his talents overseas and thrived as a player and scout. Thanks to that experience, he now finds himself part of the game’s history in Cooperstown.

With the Korea Baseball Organization the only source these days for baseball fans seeking live televised game action, it has moved to the forefront in terms of baseball consciousness. And Sadowski understands the trepidations and used a unique analogy for those only familiar with Major League Baseball.

“The way I hope the world sees it is like Americans see burger chains,” said Sadowski in a recent telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “Living in California now, people talk about In-N-Out Burger, and people in the Midwest will talk about White Castle. Big league baseball kinda has the McDonald’s model and the KBO kinda has the In-N-Out model, and the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) kinda has the White Castle model, and the CPBL (Chinese Professional Baseball League) kinda has the Whataburger model.

“It’s not necessarily that it’s the biggest model, but it’s the model that you like. If you find that you like In-N-Out then you’ll continue to watch In-N-Out. So I hope that they give it a chance. It’s a different style. It’s not going to appeal to every person, but if they give it a chance there are going to be people who like it. You don’t go to In-N-Out or White Castle expecting to get a Big Mac.”

On May 4, ESPN announced it had reached an agreement to exclusively televise six live regular-season KBO games per week in the United States. Burke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president, programming, said in a statement: “We have a longstanding history of documenting the game of baseball and we’re excited to deliver these live events to sports fans.”

Sadowksi, a 6-foot-4 righty pitcher, signed with the San Francisco Giants after being selected in the 12th round of the 2003 amateur draft out of the University of Florida.

After toiling in the minors for a few years, he finally made his major league debut with the franchise in 2009, posting a 2-4 record with a 4.45 ERA in six starts.

At a career crossroads, Sadowski signed with another Giants team – this time the Lotte Giants in the KBO – in 2010 and pitched with them three seasons, going 29-24 with a 4.03 ERA during his tenure in the hitter-friendly environment.

“When you’re 26 and you’ve kind of kicked around the minor leagues and gotten a little bit of play in the major leagues and then this opportunity from Asia comes around in a league that had just won a gold medal in the Olympics and had performed in the top two in the WBC the year before, you gotta take it if you’re in my position,” Sadowski explained. “(Former big league infielder) Jerry Royster, my first manager in the KBO, was the first foreign manager ever in Korea and he had some connections with some people with the San Francisco Giants at the time. They had decided, collectively, along with people in Lotte’s front office that I’d be a good addition to the team there.

“I got calls from people from all over saying I had to take this opportunity and I was the right guy for this. So I went with it. At the time I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I got over there everyone was telling me I was going to be the best player in the league, and Hyun-Jin Ryu was over there at the time. I was throwing a bullpen and the guy next to me I was thinking he might be better than me. That kind of realization put me in a position where I knew I had to learn the league and figure out what’s going on.”

The KBO – South Korea’s most popular sports league – was founded in 1982 and currently has 10 teams. While the foreign player limit is set at three for each KBO team – including more than 200 Americans over the years – a number of former KBO stars eventually forged successful major league careers including Ryu, Chan Ho Park and Byung-hyun Kim.

“I started off very slow but they were patient with me. I was able to make the adjustment necessary. From there on it was a really good experience,” Sadowski said. “But there are a lot of guys that aren’t able to embrace that change. There are some guys that go over there either on the downside of their career or they go over there and they’re hurt or sometimes you have guys that just have bad seasons. There are a lot of variables that go into it.

“But for me it worked out to where I was able to have some success and I played on a good team and I had a good support system around me. A lot of things worked out on top of the fact that I threw the ball pretty well.”

Asked to compare KBO play to that of baseball in America, Sadowski said it was refinement over raw ability.

“There are plenty of Koreans guys who have the raw ability to play in the major leagues but you can watch a Double-A game and think there are 10 guys on the field that all have the potential to be impact major leaguers,” he said. “Where in the KBO you might see 10 guys on the field that can play in the big leagues right now, but they’re not necessarily impact major leaguers. But the guys in the KBO would beat the Double-A guys today because they’re just more refined. They know what their strengths and weaknesses are.”

According to Sadowski, his pitching repertoire didn’t change much when he went to the KBO.

“I was a pretty developed pitcher at that point. I didn’t all of a sudden start throwing 95 with a wipeout curveball,” he said. “I remained 88-92 miles per hour with a sinker, cutter, and mixed in some secondary stuff. I was kind of your classic ‘Four A’ guy (better than a Triple-A player but unable to stick in the big leagues) that found success in Asia.”

Upon returning to the United States after the 2012 season, an injured elbow brought his professional playing days to an end after 11 seasons. But in 2015, the Lotte Giants hired him to become its international director of scouting – the first foreigner to hold a fulltime scouting position with any KBO team in league history.

In January 2020, it was announced that Sadowski took a new position as an international scout with the KBO’s Kia Tigers.

Now having worked with the front office of two KBO squads, Sadowski’s duties have included providing scouting reports on foreign players on his teams, on new foreign players with other KBO teams and on prospective foreign players in the U.S.

The former hurler first made a name for himself in scouting circles during the 2013 World Baseball Classic. When Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens inquired about the Korean hitters, Sadowski produced a seven-page professional report detailing Korea’s pitching, batting and fielding abilities. The result? A shocking 5-0 victory that knocked highly regarded South Korea out of the WBC.

Today, thanks to Sadowski’s generosity, that scouting report and a Lotte Giants cap he wore in 2012 are now part of the permanent collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

“Hensley and I had a relationship dating back prior to me going over to Korea,” Sadowksi said. “Hensley informed some people that I provided him with the scouting report which gave the team a bit of a competitive advantage going into the game. That made pretty big news because Korean baseball is one of the top international baseball teams in the world.

“To have something in Hall of Fame is a real honor. Baseball has been a part of my life since I was a little kid. Being able to continue to work in the game is really cool, but to have something that is in a museum is timeless.”

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series