KIA Tigers Star Brett Pill’s Baseball Journey
KIA Tigers first baseman Brett Pill has talent enough to tie for the team lead in home runs both last season and through the first 60 games of 2015. However, while growing up in San Dimas, California, the game of baseball was more about having a good time than a career aspiration. “[Becoming a professional player] wasn’t necessarily a goal,” explained Pill, “We just had a lot of fun with it.” Even his father, with his own professional experience in the minor leagues, provided more guidance than pressure for Pill along his path. “He coached me throughout the way, but it was never to try to make it, just to have a good time and enjoy [baseball]. [I] just kept at it through high school, and was lucky enough to make it to college, and just kept going with it.”
Pill’s fortune continued during his first year of playing at California State Fullerton, when his team won the College World Series in 2004. His play the following year gave him his first chance at a professional contract, being drafted in the 45th round (the 1,362nd player chosen) by the New York Yankees. It was an opportunity he wisely declined, as the improvement in his on-field performance the next year parlayed into being selected in the seventh round (206th) of the 2006 draft by the San Francisco Giants. Pill explained the decision not to turn professional at the first chance, saying, “Really it was kind of a no-brainer. We had a good team in college. I was lucky to have a pretty good year and jump up.”
Unlike in the other major American professional sports leagues, even players selected early in the amateur draft have to spend time paying their dues in baseball’s minor leagues before making the big leagues. Pill explained the less-than-glamorous life of a minor-leaguer: “It’s tough. I think a lot of people hear you play professional baseball and think it’s all sunshine and rainbows. But you don’t get paid much, it’s a lot of travel – like 16 hour bus rides.” Nevertheless, Pill looks back at the time appreciatively: “It made me the player and person I am today.”
That hard work and attitude paid off when Pill was brought up to the majors in August 2011, and his very first major league at-bat resulted in a home run. “I was just up there swinging as hard as I could and I got lucky to run into one. It’s something I’ll never forget,” Pill recalled. He explained that the moment was extra special since the game was in San Diego, not too distant from his hometown, so a lot of his family was able to be in attendance.
The hot start to his major league career continued with another home run in the next game, but it was unfortunately not to last. “It started off good and kind of went downhill from there,” Pill explained about his time in the majors. The result was that he spent much of the next few seasons “bouncing” between the major and minor leagues.
Following the 2013 season, Pill found himself at a crossroads in his career: “I was at the point where I either had to make the major league team and stay or… it was looking like I could be all over the place.” That kind of instability would soon be unacceptable, as Pill and his wife learned they were expecting their first child. This led them to make the unconventional decision to seek stability for their family half the world away, with Pill signing a contract to play for the KIA Tigers here in Gwangju. He explained how his drive to be a more-present father steered his baseball career in this direction: “It was kind of a weird concept but, instead of being back home, bouncing around and flying all over the place, I knew being here, you get every Monday off and short travel, like 3-hour bus rides. So, we decided this would be a better place. I’d be around more.”
The decision, however, was made with family and career concerns in mind, not due to the lure of Gwangju or Korea in general. Explaining his prior knowledge of Korea, Pill admitted, “I’ll be honest – I didn’t know much. I knew Gwangju was far away from Seoul. But I didn’t know what to expect.” Despite this, Pill and his wife have found the transition “pretty easy,” saying life in Gwangju has “far exceeded” their prior, indefinite expectations. “We love it here,” said Pill.
The move has required some on-field adjustments for Pill as a player. “As far as baseball, the games are different. The fans are screaming all the time and singing. You got to get used to that.” After finding this Korean-style of fandom “weird at first,” Pill admitted that now he actually looks forward to it, saying, “It does pump you up.”
The cheering fans in the stands are not the only ones at the stadium making Pill feel at home. “As far as on this team, everybody has welcomed me like I’m a Korean player. They’ve more than accommodated for me. So, I appreciate it.”
Pill indicated that the current upbeat environment on the team stems from first year manager Kim Ki-tae. “He’s very positive, very personal – he really cares. He’s just a really good person and I think everybody wants to play really hard for him.” He also added that Kim had a plan for Pill’s father, in town during the timing of this interview, to participate in on-field, pre-game activities during the following game. When asked if it there was any added meaning to playing in front of his parents again, Pill laughingly admitted, “They’ve seen me play forever. They mostly came to see their granddaughter.” As for how they support him as a player, he said little has changed in their attitude since those childhood days in San Dimas: “They just want me to have fun. They hope I get a hit, but at the end of the day, they’re just happy I can still play and do something I love.”