Jamie Romak received countless text messages from friends across the world when video surfaced of the Canadian player dressed as a 1950’s army general at the Korean Baseball Organization’s all-star game this month.
Few outside of South Korea recognized the reference — the London, Ont., native’s nickname is RomacArthur after the famous U.S. General Douglas MacArthur — but the outfit was a hit, earning Romak the best costume award at the July 21 game.
“It wasn’t my idea, I can’t take credit for it at all,” Romak said with a laugh while explaining the nickname. “The backstory is from the Korean War. South Korea was losing and General MacArthur comes in and they win a big battle in Incheon, the tides turn, they start pushing North Korea out of the area and so on. … Coincidentally, my team (SK Wyverns) was losing when I got here (in 2017) and then we started winning games and they gave me this nickname that’s kind of stuck.
“Our PR guys thought it would be cool to dress me up in that outfit (for the all-star game) and the fans loved it. It got a lot of attention. … Some of the initial texts I got were ‘what the heck are you doing wearing a leather jacket and aviators to the plate?’ So I had a lot of explaining to do. But it makes sense over here.”
Romak, who played a handful of major league games with the L.A. Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014 and 2015, has became a superstar over three seasons in South Korea, where his power bat has made him a fan favourite (and earned him the Home Run Derby championship this year).
The outfielder/first baseman is tied for the KBO lead in home runs with 22 through 98 games, is fourth in RBI’s (73) and runs scored (66) and was the top overall vote-getter for the all-star game in fan and player balloting.
Romak attributes his success to the more laid-back attitude towards baseball in South Korea. But the level of fan interaction took some getting used to.
“You have a cheer master and a cheerleading squad and it’s basically a concert going on the whole game,” Romak said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. ”After the game, if you get the game MVP you go up on the stage with the fans and they make you dance and do embarrassing things.
“The first time I went up there I was like ‘this isn’t me, this isn’t the environment I’m used to.’ But I’ve gotten better at being comfortable with being a little uncomfortable and the game’s here are a blast. The most fun I’ve had playing baseball.”
Romak, a 2003 fourth-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves, began exploring a baseball career overseas after the 2015 season, meeting with a handful of Japanese and Korean teams. He spent 2016 in Japan but was back in North America for the start of the 2017 season after signing a minor-league deal with the San Diego Padres.
Romak played 25 triple-A games that year before joining SK Wyverns in May — with his wife Kristin and their then infant son Nash moving with him to South Korea.
“For my wife to come here and essentially be on her own because I’m at baseball all the time and take care of the little guy in a foreign country, not knowing the ins and outs of how stuff goes, I think the challenge was really on her,” Romak said. ”But it’s only gotten easier as time has gone on. Our area where we live is awesome. It’s an international free economic zone so you can get by with English pretty well. There’s all different sorts of food, the residence building we live in is attached to a grocery store, there’s a Costco down the street.”
Nash, now 2 1/2 years old, has become a bit of a celebrity in his own right. Fans routinely ask to take photos with the youngster and constantly buy him clothes and toys.
Romak frequently gets gifts from fans too — baked goods and little trinkets are the norm — but sometimes things get a little weird. Earlier this month a fan gifted him with a boiled egg.
“That tops everything as most bizarre gift,” Romak said.
Romak, who helped his team win the KBO championship last season, is relishing his time in South Korea. And he wants to stay there.
“I feel like I’ve found a family here (after) three years of being around the same guys every day,” Romak said. “Every day I walk into the clubhouse, I don’t feel like a foreign guy aside from not really speaking the language. … There have been guys here who have made a great go of it and have played five-plus years straight as foreign guys.
“So as long as I feel I can be productive I want to keep playing here.”