London native power hitter with SK Wyverns; 2020 Tip O’Neill award winner
By Pat Payton
LONDON – Jamie Romak plays professional baseball in South Korea.
The 35-year-old London native, who is a power-hitter with SK Wyverns, was recently named the 2020 winner of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Tip O’Neill Award.
It’s presented annually to the Canadian-born player judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution, while adhering to baseball’s highest ideals.
Team based in Incheon
The SK Wyverns, one of 10 teams in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), are based in the city of Incheon. “It is to Seoul what Mississauga is to Toronto, a suburb with over two million people,” Romak noted in a recent telephone interview with the Independent.
Five of the KBO teams are based around the capital city of Seoul, which has a population of almost 10 million.
The 6 ft., 3 inch, 225 lb. Romak has been with the Wyverns for the past four seasons. A playing season in the KBO consists of 144 games.
“It’s a lot of games,” he says. “Spring training is a lot longer there. For example, spring training starts Feb. 1 and the (regular) season starts at the end of March. There are also some breaks along the way. The all-star game is an extended break . . . it’s usually about a week long.
“The season doesn’t wrap up until well into November, so it’s a long haul. It’s usually about 10 months from when I leave to when I get back home.”
The baseball stadiums in South Korea aren’t as big as those in the Major Leagues in North America, he says. “Most of the (KBO) stadiums seat 20,000 to 25,000 people. They’re bigger than Triple ‘A’, but smaller than the Major Leagues.”
In the KBO, teams are allowed to have three North American players. Two of them are usually pitchers. “In a 10-team league, I’m one of 10 (power) hitters,” Romak says. During his tenure with the SK club, he has never belted less than 29 home runs in a season. He socked a career-high 43 round-trippers in 2018.
He predominantly plays first base for the Wyverns (team mascot is a Wyvern, a king of dragons).
Is he treated differently because he’s an import player, Romak was asked. Are there more expectations placed on a North American player in South Korea?
“For sure,” he said without hesitation. “First, there are expectations. You are expected to provide a service to the team that either they can’t provide themselves or they want you to supplement what they already have, but do it at a really high level.
“Huge expectations. When the team is not winning, the finger can get pointed at you. But you get to reap the rewards when it goes well. It’s a pressure-cooker over there, but for that reason that’s what makes it so exciting.”
Romak is now the longest-tenured foreign player in the franchise’s history. He admits that he’s had to earn the trust of his SK teammates.
“The longer I’ve been there, and the more sincere they see me being a member of the team and helping them win, has made me one of them,” he explained.
“It all comes down to performance and how you handle yourself. If you take an interest in Korean culture and learn some of the language, and you play well and sign autographs for the fans, you have a chance to be well-known and wildly popular. You can take that as far as you want.”
It hasn’t taken long for Romak to become a fan favourite with the Wyverns. “For me, I just wanted to go there and play good baseball. Being popular just kind of happened for me, which is cool.”
‘I am your fan’
Romak says the league encourages players to interact with the fans.
“It only functions with the fans’ support,” he says. “We sign autographs and even before games you see players mingling along the fences and talking to the people.
“In Korea, people will come up to you and say, ‘I am your fan.’ That means, they are going to buy your jersey (No. 27), they’re going to buy your memorabilia and travel to visiting ball parks and cheer for you. They mean it seriously; they are there for you. You look up in the crowd and see a lot of people wearing your jersey and that’s a pretty neat thing to see.”
The former London Badger was originally drafted in the fourth round by Atlanta Braves in the 2003 Major League draft.
He played over 1,000 games in 13 minor-league seasons before Major League stints with Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014 and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015. He didn’t play his first Major League game until he was 28. With baseball life good in South Korea and a bonafide star in the KBO, Romak says a goal isn’t to necessarily get back to North America and the Major Leagues.
“In regards to that, I just want to be the best that I can possibly be in the framework of where I am at that time. If it’s a contract in Korea, then I want to be the best I can be in Korea. It’s worked out tremendously well for me over there.”
Choice becomes an easy one
If you’re an every-day player in the Major Leagues, there’s no better place to play baseball in the world, Romak says. But once you’re not and you’re a bench player, if you get the opportunity to play every day in Asia, he says the choice becomes an easy one.
“At my age, it’s just realistic. I play every day, hit fourth in the (batting) order, make a good living, and live in an area that my family feels comfortable and a lifestyle that we enjoy. When people are genuinely cheering for you, it’s just hard to beat . . . and we really like it there.
“I know that I’m an every day, middle of the line-up, impact player in Korea. I can’t say that would be my role on a team in the States, so it’s more enjoyable for me to have that bigger role in Korea. I’m just enjoying where I am in the present.”
Jamie Romak has also been active in charitable and community endeavours during his baseball career. He has been a strong supporter of Baseball Canada and of the Boys and Girls Clubs in the various cities he has played in. During the off-season, he sponsors local players in London, so that they can get individual baseball training.