Ben Jukich is the only United States-born player on the LG Twins, a professional baseball team based in Seoul, South Korea, in the Korea Baseball Organization.
The left-handed former Dakota Wesleyan pitcher — who is the university's first and only player selected in the MLB Draft — said he doesn't have many teammates who speak English and his 6-foot-5 figure makes him stick out like a sore thumb.
"When I first came over here, I really didn't know anything about baseball in Korea," Jukich, a Duluth, Minn., native, said from South Korea in a telephone interview with The Daily Republic late Thursday night. "But now I love it over here."
After a five-year career in the minor leagues, making it as high as Triple-A, Jukich signed a one-year contract on Nov. 1 with the LG Twins, one of eight teams in the KBO. Through the halfway point of the season, Jukich is excelling.
Individually, he has posted a 5-3 record in 14 starts with a 3.39 ERA. His best start came on May 15 when he threw a complete-game one-hit shutout in which he didn't allow a hit until the eighth inning.
Jukich and the LG Twins are 36-30 and in fourth place in the KBO, which would be good enough for the final playoff spot come postseason in September. The team is 3.5 games behind the league's leader.
"I've been pitching pretty well," said Jukich, who led the NAIA with 144 strikeouts in 2006, a year he was on the All-American honorable mention list for the Tigers and was later drafted in the 13th round by the Oakland Athletics. "I really enjoy it and hope to come back for another season over here, unless I get a better offer in the states."
Jukich moved through the minor leagues quickly. He reached Triple-A in 2008 after going 14-8 in his first two years with Oakland's and Cincinnati's minor league teams.
In 2010, Jukich was taken by the St. Louis Cardinals in the Rule 5 Draft, which gave him his best chance to make a major league roster. When St. Louis obtained his rights, the team had a decision to put Jukich on its 25-man roster for the entire 2010 season or offer his contract back to Cincinnati for $25,000, or half of what the Cardinals paid to acquire him. The Cardinals sent Jukich back to Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate, the Louisville Bats, in March 2010. He did not make it to the major leagues.
Soon, Korean baseball scouts were watching Jukich, who left the minor leagues when the LG Twins purchased his contract from the Reds. He said he "started to lose enthusiasm to play baseball."
"I just felt like it was time to go," Jukich said. "It was kind of a bittersweet experience over there.
"I really, really loved my manager and pitching coach … but I didn't feel like I was getting the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues. For me, it was just time to go at that time. Would I consider going back to Cincinnati? Absolutely I would, but I just needed a change at the time, because it started to get a little bit redundant."
Jukich wouldn't disclose the amount of money he's earning to play in South Korea.
"It is far better than what I was making in Cincinnati," Jukich said. "Way better."
Jukich — who has a translator hired by the team — first met with his Korean teammates at fall camp in November in Florida, and he went to spring training in Okinawa, Japan, in January. In November, Jukich and his wife, Kathryn, found out they're expecting their first child.
Kathryn was in South Korea from the beginning of the season until about two weeks ago, when she flew back to the United States to prepare for childbirth.
With Dakota Wesleyan in 2006, Jukich tied or set DWU records for strikeouts in a season (144), strikeouts in a game (17) and wins (10).
"Going into South Dakota I knew I'd have an opportunity to pitch, but I had no idea it would turn into what it did," Jukich said. "I got drafted out of (Dakota Wesleyan) and I pitched well there. Of course I would say they're one of the big stepping stones in my career."