SAN FRANCISCO — Jae-gyun Hwang spent years dreaming of this day, of stepping onto the green grass in a big league stadium and then digging his cleats into the dirt alongside the plate. He never imagined hitting a homer in his debut, though, and he certainly never pictured what would come next.
Hwang was pulled into the clubhouse shower a few minutes after a 5-3 sweep-clinching win over the Rockies and surrounded as teammates emptied cans of beer on their new third baseman and cheered so loud that they could be heard from the press conference room. There are many quirky traditions in the KBO, where Hwang was a superstar, but the list does not include beer showers. Any confusion didn’t last long.
“We had his translator in there with him,” Nick Hundley said, smiling. “We said, this is what you get when you hit a homer in the big leagues.”
You get something else, too: Another day in the lineup. Bruce Bochy has a tongue-in-cheek rule that if you hit a homer, you play the next day. The Giants, however, expect to get starting third baseman Eduardo Nuñez back from the disabled list on Friday in Pittsburgh. What will Bochy do with a 29-year-old rookie who hit a 417-foot laser shot in his third MLB at-bat?
“I have a loophole,” Bochy said. “We’re off tomorrow.”
Bochy might not have to use the loophole. Austin Slater, the starting left fielder, was still feeling tightness in his right hip Wednesday and Nuñez could move over to left for a few days, allowing the Giants a longer look at Hwang. It’s an audition that seemed to never be coming as late as Tuesday morning. But Conor Gillaspie showed up with back spasms, and with Christian Arroyo on the minor league disabled list, Nuñez a few days away, and Aaron Hill recently released, the Giants turned to Hwang.
It’s the kind of break that you need to make your mark, but you also need talent and confidence in your own abilities, and Hwang oozes both.
The Giants had hit just 20 homers at AT&T Park this season when Hwang stepped to the plate in the sixth. Hundley’s was the third in the past 15 home games, and it helped them head into the late innings tied up with the Rockies. Hwang had earlier driven in a run with a groundout and in his third at-bat he started by taking two balls from lefty Kyle Freeland.
“My focus is always the same: Hit in my zone,” Hwang said through interpreter Mark Kim. “Because I’m a rookie, I figured once I got to a 2-0 count it might be a fastball down the middle, and that’s what happened.”
Hwang blasted it and briefly held his bat in the air, posing as the ball soared to the bleachers. He dramatically dropped the bat and started his first journey around the bases as the dugout exploded.
“When it comes to bat flips, you don’t plan it,” Hwang said. “It comes naturally. I don’t know what I was thinking. It just happened.”
Hwang’s bat flips in South Korea were so legendary that YouTube videos made their way overseas. He had promised not to flip his bat in the big leagues, saying that he doesn’t want to get hit in retaliation. There are pitchers on Hwang’s own team who don’t approve of flips or drops, but his manager said he doesn’t care one bit.
“I want these guys to be who they are and he’s just been a lot of fun to be around,” Bochy said. “He’s a great guy and he’s very popular in that clubhouse.”
Hwang’s work ethic this spring won teammates over, and he showed a willingness to jump right into the fray, whether he was making jokes or the butt of them. On St. Patrick’s Day, he entered Scottsdale Stadium with a green fedora and a green Tinker Bell shirt that read “I’m so fly … I never land.” Throughout the spring he handed out chocolate pies from boxes above his locker. During his time in Sacramento he regularly took teammates to Korean BBQ restaurants, where he was recognized as a celebrity. Hwang is so famous in his native country that multiple networks scrambled to air the Giants game at 4:45 a.m. Those in his hometown of Seoul either woke up to watch or woke up to celebrate.
Thousands of miles away, Hwang focused on his new reality. As he packed to head to Pittsburgh, he exchanged a signed jersey for his first home run ball. The only No. 1 jersey Hwang had was the one on his back, so a fan walked away with an old Matt Duffy jersey instead.
If Hwang can keep showing that power stroke, he’ll return in a week to a ballpark eager to cheer a new contributor. For now, the Giants are just happy to have another spark.
“They were so excited for him and happy for him,” Bochy said. “They all know what he’s been through. He’s given up baseball in Korea to play here and he reaches his dream and hits a homer. It’s a special moment. These are moments you love.”