Former Cardinal Xavier Scruggs is playing for the NC Dinos in South Korea this season, replacing Eric Thames on the team's roster.
By Rob Rains
There is a reason former Cardinal Xavier Scruggs has been paying close attention to the success Eric Thames has had so far this season with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Thames signed with the Brewers this season after playing for three years with the NC Dinos in the Korean Baseball Organization. Needing another American to replace Thames, the Dinos signed Scruggs to a one-year contract.
Scruggs has not let down his new team. A month into the season he is third in the league with 10 homers, two off the league lead, and is third in runs scored while posting a .280 average through 31 games. Scruggs leads the Dinos in homers and is second on the team with 22 RBIs.
Admitting he had some reluctance to moving halfway across the world, Scruggs said through e-mails that his experience so far in Korea has been nothing but positive for him and his wife of four months, Jessica.
One of the people who helped convince Scruggs to make the move was Thames.
“I spoke to him before signing with the team to get insight of what it was like,” Scruggs said in an email. “He gave me a lot of great information, including many ways I could help myself improve and adjustments I will need to make.”
Thames was at a similar point in his career when he decided to move to Korea in 2014. He was 27, two years younger than Scruggs, but was bouncing back and forth between Triple A and the majors, as Scruggs had done for a couple of years.
After signing with the Cardinals in 2008, when he was their 19th-round draft pick from UNLV, Scruggs steadily advanced through the farm system before reaching the majors in September of 2014.
He played a combined 26 games for the Cardinals in 2014 and 2015 before signing with the Marlins in 2016. He played in 24 games for Miami, spending the rest of the year in Triple A. He did hit his first and so far only major-league homer for the Marlins after hitting 169 homers in the minors.
His agent is the one who first presented the idea of moving to Korea to Scruggs, who admitted he did not know much about the league and had never been to that part of the world. The agent told Scruggs the team had been scouting him for four years.
“He called me and a couple of the other Americans to get a heads up on what he should pack, all kind of questions,” Thames said. “I gave him an idea of what to expect.
“The best advice I gave him was just to have an open mind. You don’t really understand it until you go there. It’s a different culture, how different everything is. It’s almost like, ‘Am I in the Twilight Zone?’ It’s normal for them over there. I told him just to enjoy it and have fun.”
Scruggs is doing exactly that, and has found there really is not much difference in the way the game is played in the country.
The differences are found more off-the-field, he said, which is something Thames experienced as well.
“It’s a small thing, but coffee shops don’t open until like 10 a.m.” Thames said. “If you are playing a day game, you are going to have trouble finding a cup of coffee on the way to the stadium. I don’t know why it is. But a small thing like that can just throw off your day.”
The Dinos are based in Changwon, South Korea, a city of about one million people but still in a lot more rural of an area than the capital city of Seoul, which is more like New York, and has been Scrugg’s favorite city so far to visit.
“The culture here is amazing,” Scruggs said. “Everything is centered around respect. I've been to some awesome cities. The technology is super advanced. I've had to get used to toilets that come with a control pad with options such as seat heating, bidet, fan and perfume spray.
“The food is really good. There are restaurants everywhere you look. Every Korean meal comes with kimchi, which is a type of radish. They have millions of different types of noodles and rice. There is a lot of diversity among the meats. Korean BBQ is amazing. You select any cut of meat you want to cook on a circular BBQ for the table. The meats melt in your mouth.
“The language will always be a barrier but I'm open to learning and have been since spring training.”
The atmosphere at games in Korea is one of the differences from baseball in the U.S., Scruggs said.
“The fans are cheering and singing songs for each player and dancing no matter the score,” he said. “Music is played during at bats as well as drums and other instruments.”
Officials on the Dinos have been pleased with how well Scruggs has fit in on the team and how well he has done in succeeding Thames, who hit a combined 126 homers for the team over the past three seasons.
“He has been getting along well with his teammates, coaches and staff very well,” said Jeong Moon Lee, an official in the Dinos’ international department, in an email. “He has a positive mind and it has been a help for the team. Everybody loves him.
“Of course there are cultural differences between South Korea and America. KBO and MLB also have some differences. Players who open their mind and try to accept the culture, most of players adjust very quickly, but those who just want play their own baseball, they take a while to adjust to the change in culture and the environment.”
The other two Americans on the Dinos this year, pitchers Eric Hacker and Jeff Manship, also have helped ease Scruggs into the league and foreign environment. Hacker has played on the team since 2013, while Manship, like Scruggs, is new to the league.
Also in the league this season are former Cardinals pitcher Carlos Villanueva and former Cardinal minor league pitcher Zach Petrick, who is on the Samsung Lions after pitching in Japan last year.
Players have gone to Korea for different reasons over the years, but for Scruggs there were two primary factors involved in his decision - financial and an opportunity to play and experience life in a foreign country.
He is making the equivalent of the major-league minimum salary of more than $500,000, far more than he would be making in Triple A. He is a on a one-year contract, and doesn’t know what other opportunities will present themselves after this season.
“Embracing a new culture has been fun,” he said.
Thames said he would offer the same advice he gave Scruggs to every player in a similar situation and point in their careers.
“Guys who keep going up and down (from the majors to the minors) it’s good to be in one spot and making good money,” Thames said. “How often do you get to travel to Asia and live there for eight to 10 months? It’s a good situation.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains