Life in America Through language barrier and laughs, 3 RiverDogs help Korean teammate adjust

Hoy Jun Park (left) from Seoul, South Korea, cleans up the batting cage with his RiverDogs teammates during practice before a game on Friday.

Of every memory the four of them have made together — of all the times the language barrier has made them laugh or inspired some unforgettable anecdote — nothing stands out quite like that trip to McDonald’s a few weeks ago.

Consider the scene: four Charleston RiverDogs all piled into a 2015 Toyota 4Runner, all minor league baseball roommates looking to grab some lunch together.

In the front seat, driving, there’s Kyle Holder from the University of San Diego, a $1.8 million shortstop who was taken as one of the New York Yankees’ 2015 first-round draft picks. He’s the Yankees’ highest draft pick in Charleston and undoubtedly one of the best defensive players taken in the class.

Next to Holder is Jeff Hendrix, a speedy fourth-round center fielder from Oregon State, who signed for almost half a million dollars. And in the back is Travis Hissong, a hard-throwing free agent from Wright State who just last week notched 11 strikeouts in 3⅔ innings of relief.

In Holder, Hendrix and Hissong, there’s plenty of common ground — all three were born in America, came to the RiverDogs by way of a college career first and speak flawless English.

The exception sits next to Hissong in the back seat, looking out the back window for the big yellow “M.”

It’s Hoy Jun Park, a 20-year-old, $1.2 million shortstop from Seoul, South Korea, who inked his name to an international free agent contract in July 2014 as an 18-year-old.

Until recently, Park had never heard of Donald Trump or country music or Chipotle.

But he’s made it his mission to navigate life in Charleston so far without the aid of an interpreter or the English classes the Yankees offer to their international players. In the next few weeks, the Yankees will send an interpreter to Charleston, whether Park feels like he needs it or not, so that the coaching staff can talk baseball specifics with him smoothly. But in the meantime, he wants to learn the everyday language on his own with the help of his roommates.

If that means botching restaurant names as he laughs in the back seat of Holder’s car, so be it.

“We had no idea where he wanted to go because he was saying McDonald’s so funny. So we end up passing McDonald’s and he pointed,” Hissong laughed. “We’re like, ‘Oh! McDonald’s!’ That whole night he practiced saying McDonald’s. He’s got it down pretty good now. But we were laughing pretty hard.”

The journey from Seoul to the Southeast of the United States covers more than 7,200 miles. Park’s first time making the trip, in 2014, is not lost on him for several reasons.

First and foremost, the distance.

“When I was in the airplane, a lot of thinking because too much flying,” he said as he laughed. “Fifteen hours. That’s crazy.”

Secondly, the trip forced him to think about how baseball differed between America and Korea.

“A little different, a little different,” he said. “Details.”

Most importantly, though, the plane ride to America marked the beginning of a dream Park never really knew he had.

Having grown up in South Korea, where he first learned to play baseball, the 6-1, 175-pound infielder always assumed his professional career would be at home, too, in the Korean Baseball Organization.

“Two years ago,” he said, “when I played in Korea, there was a lot of scouting. Americans scouting.”

The Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Rays came first.

“We got meeting,” he said. “But at first and second — first, second time, I wanted to stay in Korea.”

As he tries to put his words together, Park smiles and glances at Holder, who is also in the dugout with him to help him with English if he needs it. Holder gives him a reassuring nod that he’s doing well, so he continues.

“But next, the third time … Yankees, they told me,” Park said. “My heart shake. It was shaking. ‘I gotta go to America. I want to go to America. Play baseball.’ ”

When Park arrived in Tampa for the instructional league in September of 2014, the Yankees immediately provided him, then just 18, with an interpreter. On May 1, 2015, a new interpreter, Justin, took over.

Justin’s job was to help Park get accustomed to the lay of the land. That meant opening a bank account, obtaining a credit card and figuring out how to grocery shop in the states.

Justin also followed Park around everywhere on the diamond, breaking down what coaches and teammates were saying. When former Yankees, such as Jorge Posada, came to speak to the club, Justin would sit with Park in a back corner and break down the message word for word.

“If I wanted to say, ‘Hey, what’s up Hoy,’ I could be like ‘Hey, what’s up Hoy.’ I didn’t need to say, ‘Justin, tell him what’s up,’ ” Holder said.

“But if you wanted to ask him something more in depth, like about a swing or explain something about what a coordinator was telling us to do, his translator would have to step in and be like, ‘Do you understand?’ ”

Eventually, after months of practice, Park did understand. As spring training rolled around this season, Park had gotten so much better at English that Hendrix, his roommate in their Tampa hotel, couldn’t help but notice.

“My first impression was just that he was a nice, quiet guy. He was smart because I met him at instructs, which was a couple months prior and he literally knew barely any English,” he said. “All of a sudden, he could converse with me now. It was kind of like, ‘Wow. He really picked it up pretty quick.’ ”

When Hendrix, Holder, Park and Hissong all found out they’d be moving to Charleston for their first assignments, Park felt his English was strong enough that he could part ways with Justin or someone like him for the time being, but not yet fluent enough for him to be able to find his own housing accommodations in a two-day period. That’s about how long the RiverDogs had to figure it out.

So he approached Holder and Hendrix, who immediately welcomed him into their housing group. Along with Hissong, the four roommates all live together in West Ashley.

“Why not invite Hoy?” Hendrix said. “Hoy’s the man.”

Now that he’s settled and in as much of a routine as minor league baseball lends itself to, Park jumps at any free moment to hang out with his beloved roommates.

Almost every morning the four of them eat breakfast together for a family meal of sorts before they head to the ballpark. Hendrix rises first and brews the coffee, then the others wake up shortly after to start cooking. Park’s breakfast of choice varies vastly from that of his roommates, but it’s something they all get a smile out of.

“He just pulls out a couple cartons of Spam out of his backpack and he cooks that for breakfast with noodles and some eggs and some toast,” Holder said. “We just kind of laugh about it and go about our business.”

At night, the four pass the time by talking about all sorts of topics from baseball to life in general to Instagram. Park loves to Snapchat. Every night before bed, he knocks on Hissong’s door to tell him goodnight and that he loves him. In the morning, he typically greets Hissong with a ‘Good morning handsome,’ before they start the day.

Sometimes before it’s time for bed in their West Ashley home, the Americans will quiz Park on basic spelling to help him learn.

For the record, he has no problems spelling “Mississippi,” and thanks to his roommates, he’s now successfully mastered the difference between “steal” in the baseball sense and “steel” in the metal sense.

But for every lesson the Americans teach Park, he teaches them something, too, which is what makes the relationship so fascinating, Hissong said.

“The other night we were talking about North Korea and South Korea and he was trying to tell us in dimensions how big South Korea is compared to say, New York City — like that South Korea’s pretty small,” Hissong said. “And then he was talking about Kim Jong-un and stuff that was going on there, which was pretty interesting because he knows more about North Korea and stuff going on there than we probably do from what we’re exposed to on the news. So it’s interesting. We learn from each other.”

Occasionally the miscommunications are still there, a la the McDonald’s incident. Every now and then Park will whip out his electronic translator if he’s hung up on a word, and he still needs Korean subtitles when he watches American movies.

But with each passing day Park’s English seems to improve, in large part because of Hissong, Hendrix and Holder.

“My roommates, Kyle and Jeff and Travis, they are so awesome … my teachers here,” Park said behind an ear-to-ear grin as he grabbed Holder by the leg. “My roommates is my teachers. They teach me always.”

The four of them know it’s possible they’ll progress through the minor leagues at different rates. One day soon they could be split up, left with just the memories of their West Ashley home. Park is the highest-rated prospect out of all four of them, coming in at No. 14 on the Yankees’ top 30 prospect list. Holder isn’t far behind at No. 23.

Park is off to a strong start with the RiverDogs, hitting .246 with a league-leading three triples heading into the weekend. Scouts have agreed that he has the potential to be an everyday shortstop at the major league level.

But for now, Park isn’t letting his mind wander too far into the future. He feels at home in Charleston and has found a sense of belonging with his roommates. Once united by just a common love for baseball, it’s turned into much more than that.

“I’ve never been around a Korean kid and lived with a Korean kid that plays the same sport, let alone the same position,” Holder said. “It’s definitely a little different. But I know me, Jeff and Travis all embrace every moment we can with him. He’s a great kid and he means so well and he’s out here chasing the same dream we are. It’s fun.”