Interpreting more than words for a baseball star
By Andrew Keh
Bryan Lee struggled recently to remember when exactly he had first arrived in Dunedin, Fla. After some prodding, he placed it: Feb. 4, an eon ago in the brain-bending timeline of the pandemic.
For the past three years, Lee has worked as the interpreter for South Korean left-hander Hyun-jin Ryu, who this winter signed a four-year, $80 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays after seven years with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The two were eager to get to spring training. They had work to do.
What Lee could not have anticipated upon arriving in Florida in February was that he would still be there in early July, living in a hotel room, subsisting off delivery and drive-through meals, awaiting any hint that the baseball season might one day begin.
Lee, 28, moves easily between American and Korean culture. Born in Iowa, he attended elementary school in Virginia, middle and high school in Seoul and college at NYU, where he studied sports management. His first job after graduation was as a translator in the New York Yankees’ minor-league system. Months later, the Dodgers asked him to work with Ryu.
There was some whiplash, and anxiety, as Lee traded bumpy bus rides in the anonymity of Class A for a job in the majors as the right-hand man of one of the world’s best left-handers. But Lee now describes Ryu, 33, as “an older brother” and sees it as his job to help him attain success, in ways obvious and subtle. Beyond interpreting for coaches and the news media, Lee also translates written data, analytics and scouting reports into Korean for Ryu, who continues to improve his English.
The two remain in Dunedin with other Blue Jays staff members and players, working, awaiting updates from the team and wondering, like everyone else, what baseball will look and feel like this year.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Q: What’s a normal day for you like these days?
A: Ryu’s been throwing like two times per week, but whether he’s throwing or not, I’ll be [at the stadium]. Right now I’m just trying to be a good buddy, being with him as he’s working out, helping him with anything. There will be updates from the organization and players, and I try to make sure he understands everything.
I’ve found some silver lining, which was getting a chance to reconnect with some of my friends from college and high school, spending time on Zoom calls and whatnot, as well as a bunch of binge-watching and other things I’d never have a chance to do.
I think I’m on a first-name basis with all the Uber Eats drivers here.
Q: What is your relationship with Ryu away from the field?
A: I tell Ryu we spend too much time together, especially on the road. I got some heat when I was with the Dodgers about my lack of dating game. My excuse always was, “I have to spend time with Ryu.”
I’ve been hanging out at his place. His wife is a really good cook, and she invites me over to eat. Ryu also has a personal trainer he works with, and we go over to his house and watch Korean TV shows — variety shows, singing competitions, “The Voice of Korea.”
Q: How difficult has it been to learn all the intricacies of the game?
A: Your biggest fear is screwing something up in terms of not relaying the game plan properly. One example I can give is, like, Ryu would say, “I want to throw a fastball up,” and then I’d say that to the catcher. But if you dig deeper, that can mean anywhere from up in the zone or letter high to get a swing and a miss or almost at a shoulder level, as a show pitch. When I started, I didn’t realize how detail-oriented you had to be, even if you’re delivering something as little as that.
I remember an at-bat with Christian Yelich, when he was with the Marlins. [The former Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] said: “Let’s be up and away in the zone, fastball. He might get to it, but he won’t hit it out of the park.” And I said it to Ryu, but it actually had to be more up than how I made it sound. So Ryu went out and executed, and then Yelich hit it out the other way. They say these things expecting me to know what the underlying meaning is, and sometimes I couldn’t catch that cue. It can mean wins and losses, differences in ERA.
Q: Do you really feel stuff like that is your fault? It sounds like you’re being hard on yourself.
A: Being in a major league clubhouse, you see how all these talented people work their butt off on a daily basis. You realize if you want to be that good, or great, you have to have that mentality. You have to be nit-picky because the devil’s in the details. You look at a guy like [Clayton] Kershaw. He’s one of the best in the history of baseball, and then you always see him trying to see how he can get better. So if a guy like that is working that hard, it’s not that hard for a guy like me to at least to try to get better.
Q: What are some memorable moments from the past few years?
A: I remember a mound visit in the 2018 World Series against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, just the noise and the crowd. There were runners on, and we had to go over the game plan so his pitch sequencing was optimized. I remember thinking, This is crazy. Most of the time you don’t feel it. But the World Series one, it was just so loud. But Ryu was so calm, doing his usual digging the mound with his left foot, and I was like, OK, this is just another mound visit.
I remember a game Ryu was pitching, and Kershaw sat down right next to me in the dugout. Ryu was facing David Peralta, and Kersh was telling me what he would do in that situation, how he would attack the hitter, and how he thinks Ryu should attack the hitter. It’s a conversation Clayton probably doesn’t even remember. But I thought to myself, If I was a little kid, I would love to be in this situation.