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Romak finds his swing

SK’s Mak Hyung gets 29th homer as season returns after break
July 19,2018
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Jamie Romak of the SK Wyverns watches his two-run home run during a game against the Nexen Heroes at the Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul on July 3. [YONHAP]
At 33 years old, the SK Wyverns’ Jamie Romak, or Mak Hyung, seems to be enjoying life in Korea.

Romak, who joined the Wyverns last year, has really found his stride this season. As of 6 p.m. on Wednesday, he has 29 home runs, tied for second place with Kim Jae-hwan of the Doosan Bears in the KBO leaderboard in home runs after teammate Choi Jeong.

Choi and Kim have been locked in fierce competition for the number one spot on the leaderboard since 2016. Choi shared the lead with Eric Thames, then of the NC Dinos, with 40 home runs and Kim finished second with 37 in 2016. Last year, Choi was first again with 47 while Kim was third with 35.

Romak has waded into the middle of the competition this year, hitting 10 home runs within the first 20 games of the season. Although his batting slumped in June, Romak has returned to form and is now challenging Choi for the number one spot.

As of Wednesday 6 p.m., Romak has a batting average of .321 with 29 home runs and 69 RBIs in 84 games.

The Canadian player says that he and Choi never discuss home run records, insisting that he only sees his teammate as someone he can learn from and enjoys competing with. Romak and Choi’s power at bat helped the Wyverns secure third place as the second half of the season began.

When Romak donned the Wyverns uniform for the first time last May, he attracted little, if any, attention. Before coming to Korea, Romak posted poor numbers for Japan’s Yokohama DeNA BayStars with a low .113 batting average.

Last July, the Wyverns put Romak on the Futures League and adjusted his batting technique. Batting coach Jeong Gyeong-bae taught him to follow the ball after contact using his torso and to incorporate more of an upswing to increase the angle of release. Jeong’s coaching paid off as Romak went on to hit 31 home runs last season. It was the first time in his professional career that he hit over 30 home runs.

Romak credits his recent success to the Wyverns’ willingness to give him an opportunity to develop and prove his ability. While, in Japan, players who underperform are sent down very quickly, the Wyverns gave Romak the time he needed to improve his game.

Though 2017 was still a great year in his career, Romak still struggled to connect with the ball. This season, he tweaked his grip to effectively make the bat shorter and improve his control. Although his swing arc was reduced, the new grip provided much-needed control - his .315 batting average in the first half of this season is a testament to the change.

Choking up on the ball improved his contact, which, in addition to his already powerful swing, propelled his batting to even greater heights.

Romak has also fallen in love with Korean culture and can confidently read Korean, something he believes is absolutely crucial for a foreign player. Romak practices Korean by talking to his teammates.

His favorite phrase is munjae opseo, a Korean expression meaning no problem, also a favorite of the Wyverns coach Trey Hillman.

The Ontario-born slugger has embraced Korean culture. Living in Songdo, Incheon, with his wife Christina and two-year-old son Nash, Romak said his family loves to visit the local kids’ cafe. In fact, the Romaks find living in Incheon considerably more comfortable than Canada, although he still hasn’t made it to the jjimjilbang, or Korean sauna

Now in his second season in the KBO, Romak doesn’t really see himself as a foreign player. As he enters his mid-30s, Romak is one of the oldest players on the team and his teammates call him Mak Hyung, a favorite nickname of his. Hyung is a Korean word meaning older brother.

Romak really does see himself as the big brother of the team. He dreams of one day being the Wyverns’ captain, an impressive ambition in a league that has yet to see a foreign player named captain for any length of time.

For now, the slugger is happy to concentrate on the rest of this season, promising fans that he will bat just as well in the second half of the season and lead the Wyverns to victory in the postseason. He’s certainly started the second half of the season with a bang - Romak’s 29th home run came in the first game back against the NC Dinos on Tuesday.

BY PARK SO-YOUNG, PARK MIN-KYU [enational@joongang.co.kr]