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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

When Hobby and Work Collide

Living in another country, a hobby is a great way to keep some portion of one’s culture and identity alive. Some people play computer games, some knit, some are active in sports, some write. But not everyone’s hobby turns into a money making opportunity. Fewer still hobbies are transformed into a regular paycheck. But it’s the rare hobby that can bring both a steady paycheck and every man’s fifteen minutes of fame with it. To have a hobby where the end result can become the headlines of newspapers, nightly news shows and… well, someone else’s blog… is the stuff of legends. But for Aaron Tassano, that’s exactly what happened.

Aaron Tassano busy making notes at the baseball stadium. Photo courtesy of indyk@sportschosun.com

Several years ago, Aaron was the co-author of a baseball oriented blog that he and a friend in Taiwan managed. It was a hobby site they called East Windup Chronicle (and has since been hacked by Somali pirates). The two men enjoyed baseball enough that they wrote about baseball: which players were good, how the games went, the rankings, the stats – all the usual things that baseball fans like to talk about, read about and discuss. That’s not so unusual, as there are dozens – no hundreds, perhaps thousands – of websites dedicated to one particular sport or another. Aaron’s partner had wanted to build some sort of business around their Asian baseball blog and the two were delighted when their blogging attracted the attention of some people in one of America’s most famous Major League Baseball clubs – the Chicago Cubs. These days, in addition to his regular job teaching English at Busan Info-Tech College in Busan, Aaron spends his time traveling the length and breadth of the Korean peninsula working for the Chicago Cubs. Aaron is a professional baseball scout.

Aaron has been all over Korea, scoping out players on university and high school baseball teams throughout the nation. In the entire country, there are only 52 schools that have baseball teams. That may sound like a lot, but given the number of high schools and universities in Korea, that’s a relatively small group. Regardless, Aaron travels to games wherever they play and determines who, among all the players, is worthy of his recommendation to the big leagues. And that recommendation could potentially be worth millions. Through his hobby/job, Aaron has the power to lift a player out of the ordinary everyday existence and into the bright lights, big money and stardom of major league baseball.

Over the years Aaron and the team of recruiters he works with have placed several Korean ball players in the hands of the Chicago Cubs teams. They have placed six players in four years. Although none last year, they placed one in 2010, two in 2009, and three in 2008, the year in which Aaron joined the team. These recruits spends their time playing in one of the five levels of minor league teams that each major league team owns. As players hone their skills and older players move on, the new recruits are moved upwards through the farm-league system to eventually make the big leagues. But while they only play in the minor leagues at first, that is not without some serious compensation: a player with potential can expect a signing bonus in the range of US$725K dollars. That’s not so minor.

With the power to turn a Korean ball player into a player with the potential to be a star, Aaron has the Midas Touch. His recommendation can make a player’s entire future rosy, transforming him from just another player on just another school team to star player status. He could recruit another Park Chan Ho (박찬호) who played for multiple American teams and was the first Korean-born player in the US league) or Choo (Choo-Choo) Shin Soo (추신수). now playing with the Cleveland Indians. Both of whom are famous in Korea and America for their baseball skills. And while all that power of a recommendation might form a mental image of Aaron gallantly laying a sword on the shoulder of a kneeling ball player, the details aren’t quite so pretty.

For Aaron to make a recommendation on a player, first he must travel to the games – from Seoul to Ulsan, from Jeju to Sokcho and all points in between – and watch. That’s not so bad, you say. He gets to watch baseball, which is, after all, his hobby. But watching is only the beginning. He must record video of the players, take photos, and must write up his thoughts on their current ability and future potential. Then he must package up his video, photos and writing of each player present that to his boss, the manager of the Chicago Cubs recruiting for all of Asia. And, of course, all that travel means someone has to pay for planes, trains and automobiles as well as meals, hotels and whatever else is required in order to watch these disparate players. Aaron pays his own way, but is reimbursed for all his expenses – provided he painstakingly records and documents all his expenses properly. Aaron’s hobby has now mutated into a full blown job, with weekly requirements and deliverables. Still, he enjoys scouting despite the work-like aspect of it.

“It’s fun. I guess the most ‘work’ like aspect of the job is calculating expenses. When I go places I have to save all my receipts so I can get reimbursed. I have to individually tape them each to a piece of paper, being careful to not let any of them overlap, convert the money to dollars, then add them all up on a spreadsheet. Even that’s not terrible because it means I’m getting my money back. Outside of that, even the most mundane aspects of the job are at least fairly interesting to me since they involve baseball.”

And if fun isn’t enough to do it, the pay helps. Aaron makes good money scouting in addition to his regular teaching gig.

Over the five years that Aaron has been scouting, he’s helped recruit some players that bear watching. His first year he helped recruit Ha Jae-hoon (하재훈) from Masan. Early on he seemed like the least likely success story: no MLB teams were interested in him and the local Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) scouts for Lotte even derided the signing publicly, complaining that the Cubs were recklessly signing minor league filler. Aaron was concerned.

“Ha’s first year was pretty so so, and I started to think he might get cut during his next spring camp. But he surprised everyone by getting off to a strong 2010 and he’s kept it going ever since. “

Ha was called up to the Double-A team last year because of an injury and played well there. Recruited at out of high school, Ha is just now 21 years old and this spring he’s going to major league camp.

Another player that Aaron helped to recruit is Lee Hak-ju (이학주). Lee has become a much-hyped prospect for Tampa Bay when he was traded by the Cubs in 2010. Many believe Lee will be the next good, or even great, Korean major league ball player.

Scouting for the American MLB sounds like fun for any fan of baseball. But that’s not to say it isn’t without controversy. This past week, for example, the KBO was upset that the Baltimore Orioles did not discuss with them the signing of 17-year-old pitcher, Kim Seong-Min. Apparently, the KBO feels they should be informed when another country’s ball team become interested in a player that they (the KBO) haven’t already signed themselves. Given the contract requirements as outlined in this story by The Marmot’s Hole, it’s no wonder that Korean ball players would welcome a discussion by any other baseball recruiting organization.

In between traveling to games, editing videos, writing reports and expense statements, Aaron still has time to tend to his “real” job. As a college teacher, he only works three days a week, and only for seven months of the year. That leaves him plenty of time to devote to his hobby. We should all be so lucky to have a hobby that pays a salary. Aaron likes to soft-pedal his role in major league baseball and proclaim that he’s just one part of a team, low man on the totem pole and generally other lots of self-effacing talk. Still, he is a part of Major League Baseball, America’s greatest past time. That’s something a great many of us can only dream of.

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