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International Baseball players efficient on the field and at the sales racks

Former big-league outfielder Cory Aldridge said one big thing he has noticed since being part of South Korea's Seoul Nexen Heroes is how hard — and long — they practice.

"That's kind of their culture," said Aldridge, 31, who played briefly for the Angels last season. "They're going to outwork you."

And, apparently, they will out-shop you, too.

The Heroes are in town to participate in the inaugural International Baseball League at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, a 13-game slate that includes two other foreign teams, Canada and the Netherlands, as well as the Phillies, Rays and Blue Jays and a couple of college squads. Games run Monday through March 13.

The Heroes have been working out at Walter Fuller Park the past few weeks, going through fundamentals, conditioning, hitting and simulated games, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. before heading back to their rooms at Urban Style Flats by Tropicana Field. They often come back for night workouts from 7 to 9 p.m.

But on their off days, it's time for mall madness.

"It's the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen," Aldridge said. "International (Plaza in Tampa). They'll come back with four or five bags apiece, and they all have the same thing."

Pitcher Brandon Knight, 35, the only other American on the Heroes, said that in Korea, the prices for clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister are double those in the United States. So the players are not only efficient on the field but at the sales racks.

"Every time they go to the mall, they have bags filled with Abercrombie," Knight said.

The Heroes, who pack their bags every winter for their own spring training, had trained at Pirate City in Bradenton until 2009. They tried Japan last year, but it was way too cold.

They considered going to Arizona, China and Vero Beach, but St. Petersburg officials were aggressive and accommodating, offering a selection of fields, competition and weather they felt was a perfect fit. Mayor Bill Foster wants to make this event an annual tradition, hosting international — and American — teams at Al Lang, the former spring training home of the Rays, as well as other big-league teams throughout the past century.

Fittingly, the Heroes are like the Rays in a few ways. Public relations director C.H. Kim said the seven other teams in their Korean league are owned by large corporations such as Samsung or LG, boasting bigger payrolls in the $30 million to $40 million range.

"The goliaths," he said.

Meanwhile, the Heroes are the only team that is privately owned, and its budget is around $15 million, so it has to be creative, much like the Rays, who compete against the much richer Yankees and Red Sox.

The Heroes do have a few star players, such as smooth-fielding shortstop Kang Jung Ho. And there's closer Son Seunglak, who won the league saves title last season.

But, Aldridge said, it's "all about the team." Manager Kim Sijin makes sure players realize that "sacrifice" in their workouts, which involve nonstop movement and precision. The team goes from stretching and playing catch to different stations, from bullpen sessions to batting cages. A coach throws soft-toss to two hitters on the field, while another one goes by the backstop.

And Aldridge said it's a positive environment, something he needed. Aldridge, a fourth-round pick by the Braves in 1997, has played in just 13 big-league games, five last year with the Angels, and is enjoying this opportunity.

"You go out there every day and everybody is happy, smiling, having a lot of fun," he said. "The team is very close-knit. You don't have guys making a lot of money and then come in every day complaining about it."

Aldridge said it has been easy to fit in and to joke around with the Korean players, even with the language barrier, saying he likes being their "concierge" in the bay area. And the only argument seems to be what to do on the team's off days.

"We went to a hockey game the other day," Knight said. "It was way too much going to the mall."

Times multimedia producer Carrie Pratt contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Catcher Kwitae Kang of the Seoul Nexen Heroes lunges to grab a ball thrown wide of home plate during practice.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Catcher Kwitae Kang of the Seoul Nexen Heroes lunges to grab a ball thrown wide of home plate during practice.

.Fast facts

International Baseball

Who: Three international teams (Seoul Nexen Heroes of South Korea, the Netherlands and Canada), along with the Rays, Phillies and Blue Jays, Penn State and St. Petersburg College

Tickets: Individual tickets start at $6, season ticket package (for all games) at $75, available at stpeteinternationalbaseball.com, by phone at (727) 551-3000 or at the Al Lang box office.

International Baseball players efficient on the field and at the sales racks 02/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 11:28pm]
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