One player’s journey back to baseball
Story By: Emma Kalka
Photos By: Robert Michael Evans
If you ask Eric McDaniel what his first love was, he’ll immediately answer baseball.
Adopted from Korea to the U.S. when his was nearly four, his parents started playing catch with him when he was six. At the time, they thought he was left-handed so put a glove on his right hand. This mistake would help set him up for a unique ability in his playing career – turning him into a switch pitcher.
Meaning McDaniel could go out and pitch left-handed for the first few innings, then switch to his right and still keep going strong. At the age of fifteen his ability spread from a small suburbs of Independence, Missouri to all over the country since he played for a scout team called the Triple Play All-Stars headed by Chris Egleston who is a former AAA pitcher and now a pitching coach for the Texas Rangers.
He had dreamed of playing Division 1 baseball in university and even had several opportunities and scholarships lined up for him, but when his father was diagnosed with cancer his second year of junior college, he made the decision to defer the offers and return to his native Kansas City to continue in Division 2 baseball so he could be with his family.
McDaniel’s baseball career was looking good for him though. At Jefferson Community College he was on the All-Star Team his last year in his division. That following summer he played for the Farmington Firebirds, which is considered a pro team of handpicked Division 1 players from across the country. He had a .380 batting average and stole over 25 bases. Then at Rockhurst University, halfway into the season after the move, he was at one point leading the nation in stolen bases and had a .350 batting average in the only wood bat league in university baseball. He had met Coach Blando, who was an official scout for the Kansas City Royals who was prospecting him as a free agent if he finished the season. But due to financial problems and his father’s illness, he made a tough decision.
He chose to walk away from baseball.
“I wasn’t happy as a 21-year-old kid going back to Kansas City, having this weight on my shoulders. Unfortunately, I chose to quit baseball half the season in and got an internship to do finance,” he said.
During that last year of university, he had the chance to meet his first Korean friend – there weren’t many Korean Americans in his city – which inspired him to start looking into his own roots and cultural heritage. This led to his next big decision.
When the stock market crashed in 2008, he quit his finance job, packed up his bags, sold his car, and moved to South Korea without knowing the language or anyone. He hoped to recultivate his culture and eventually connect with his birth parents.
His first two years he worked at a hagwon as an English teacher and was able to find his parents, something he considers lucky as most adoptees never get a chance.
“I love my American family. I know who I am. And I think that’s very important before you find your Korean family. For me, it wasn’t a sense of closure, it was finding new information that I didn’t know,” he said. “And total forgiveness to have a bigger family.”
He continues that even though he was abandoned, he doesn’t blame his Korean parents. He considers it a second chance at life as an opportunity to succeed. For example, he wouldn’t have the ability to have such a loving mom and dad back in the U.S. However, he wanted to meet his extended family here that had nothing to do with his abandonment.
“Family is about growth. You can’t have that without total forgiveness and love. So that’s my advice to any Korean adoptee. Be ready emotionally before you reach out. Otherwise, you’ll never get what you want.”
After two years in Korea, McDaniel said he wanted to do something different than teaching English, so he started working in event planning. By 2010, he became the head of the company and grew the business so much – cashing in on the import of Western-style nightlife culture with the concept of VIP management, table service and Western DJs – they were doing events every weekend at clubs, lounges, and hotels all over the city. It was then that McDaniel realized that he could do both consulting and partnerships with other clubs while running a club as well. McDaniel’s entertainment company became so good at promotions that they could open a club that could fill hundreds of people every weekend at the same time provide BTL promotions for other venues.
And thus, Boombar in Itaewon was born.
McDaniel was a smaller co-founder of the club for a time, but then left to start his own restaurant. He created a deokbokki franchise with his older brother, who is also a Korean adoptee and a former chairmen of a top tourism company in Korea. He operated it for two years and learned everything he could about the business. It was during that time that he learned the business wasn’t for him. Therefore, they sold and closed the business and then he worked on redeveloping Club Opium as a partner, making it one of the most popular clubs in Itaewon. Eric also produced several shows for the YouTube channel DigitalSojuTV. It is famous for the “North Korean Try” series and “South Korean Girls Try” series. After all that, he worked with his longtime friend Rick Heymann, combining Heymann’s 15 years of experience in the music industry at NAXOS.com, which is the biggest distribution and label for classical music, with his own experience in DJ booking, artist management and event management to launch the company Stellar Antics Entertainment.
Currently, the company consists of McDaniel and Heymann as the two heads, Maim Kim who does PR and hospitality at events, Gang Yueun who is a marketer, and Jin Han who handles marketing and operations. The company specializes in premium events with a focus on music, celebrities and entertainment culture. The music branch provides solutions to major music companies in Korea, while the event side hosts parties at premium lounges and venues all over the city.
But even with all his success in business, McDaniel wasn’t done with baseball just yet.
Two years ago while filling in as a guest color commentator for the Lotte Giants on an English radio station, he garnered attention from the other Korean sportscasters from MBC Sports Plus. He met Heo Gyu-yeon, a former player, and Ha Myung-jae. They asked about his story and he told them that he used to play in America as a switch pitcher.
“Mr. Heo just asked me a lot of questions. And then he goes, ‘Do you want to play again?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’” McDaniel said. He credits Julio Franco as his inspiration. Franco is the hitting coach for Lotte Giants farm team and was the oldest person to play in the MLB. He only quit playing professional ball in Japan at the age of 57.
“I was like, if he can do it. I can do it. It was simple,” McDaniel said.
The following spring, he tried out for the LG Twins. Unfortunately, he was told two things afterwards – if he was really serious he needed to switch his citizenship and go to military service so he could play as a Korean since spots for foreign players were limited. Or, he could play independent baseball and they would refer him. However, the LG farm team didn’t refer him to the indie team The Paju Challengers as they said they would.
While he wanted to go to the KBO as a foreign player, logically, he knew it didn’t make business sense – he knew he wasn’t a top dollar prospect being away from professional baseball for 12 years now at the age of 32. So he continued to focus on business. And then, the following winter he was introduced to Choi Ikseong, the founder of Journeymen, by his long time friend and business partner Gang Yueun. They met and he tried out for the team the following week.
“But I realized I wanted to do more. He realized I wanted to do more. To grow independent baseball association better in Korea,” McDaniel said.
So today, outside of playing right field for the Journeymen, he acts as a hitting and outfield instructor, a scout and agent for foreign players – even setting up another branch under his company called SA Sports to manage them – and he is also building a sports academy called Alpha Squad Academy which works with young Korean prospects to prepare them to play baseball in the U.S.
He also is part of the management team for the Journeymen called SSOG – Special Sports Operations Group – which is dedicated to developing the indie ball system and culture of baseball in Korea.
“Besides baseball, my second passion is making people happy. And the best way I know how to make people happy is creating a platform for people to have fun,” he said. He continued that luckily through his business, he has five revenue streams that intertwine in business practice that allow him to do this.
“Because of my passion to make people happy and creating entertainment, and my constant love for baseball since I was four years old, I’m now at a time to give back hopefully what I’ve learned to the baseball industry in Korea,” he said. “And help mentor athletes and other entrepreneurs who are looking for solutions.”