Ex-Blue Jay Richmond’s ‘nightmare’ time in Korea

Scott Richmond will represent Canada this month at the Pan Am Games. (Dennis Grombkowski/Getty)

Scott Richmond had big plans when he signed a $700,000, one-year contract with the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization League for the 2013 season. The former Toronto Blue Jays right-hander was looking for a memorable life experience to close out his baseball career, and a few years in Asia would give him and his family precisely that, and perhaps with some financial security, as well.

“I was really excited for it,” he says.

Two and a half years later, that excitement has become a long-running nightmare, one Richmond and his representatives at The Legacy Agency hope comes to an end during a court hearing scheduled for next Wednesday in Busan, South Korea.

The 35-year-old from Vancouver is fighting for payment of his guaranteed contract, of which he has yet to receive a dime, not even the $150,000 signing bonus due upon arrival at camp with the Giants in the spring of ’13. The team, he says, is using a left knee injury he suffered fielding a bunt during the opening workout as the pretext to avoid payment, even though Richmond was healthy in time for the start of the season and ended up pitching in the Texas Rangers system when the Giants didn’t take him back.

Richmond is still pitching now -- he’ll represent the defending champion Canadian team at the Pan Am Games this month in Toronto -- eager to move past the ordeal, but willing to press on as long as it takes.

“I tried everything my hardest to earn it,” says Richmond. “I’m doing this to bring light to the situation, to prove I did nothing wrong. I wanted to come back and earn it, they said no. It’s a guaranteed contract, where’s the dilemma here?”

That’s a question the Major League Baseball Players Association is asking, too, according to RJ Hernandez, Richmond’s representative at Legacy, who says he’s never seen a situation similar to this one.

“The strength of our case is outstanding. The key to all of this is that we have a fully executed guaranteed contract that only one side lived up to,” says Hernandez. “This case can potentially impact the decisions of other players.”

The Korean Baseball Organization, the central body of which the Giants are a part, didn’t respond to Hernandez’s initial attempts at making that point, eventually telling Richmond’s Seoul-based legal counsel it was up to the team to settle the matter, although it did leave things open-ended.

Certainly the longer things drag out for Richmond, especially if the court rules against him, will “affect the decision of other foreign players to go over,” adds Hernandez.

“I just want people to know these things happen over there and you have to be aware of it because you’re all by yourself over there,” says Richmond. “You need to understand that things happen like this and it’s not all big paycheques and people thinking you’re amazing.”

Attempts to reach the Giants for comment weren’t successful. In November, the team was embroiled in controversy when allegations surfaced that officials conducted illegal surveillance of players during the 2014 season. Team president Choi Ha-jin and two other top officials resigned.

Richmond signed his contract for a total of $700,000 on Dec. 13, 2012 and he was due $150,000 of that in the form of a signing bonus Jan. 25, 2013. During that time, the Giants’ management changed and Richmond says he was promised payment of the bonus soon after, a request he accepted.

When he took the field for the club’s first spring workout, on a wet field, he tore the meniscus in his left knee when he slipped during a bunt defence drill.

“It was just one of those freak things -- you field a bunt at third, you push off with your right leg, your left leg catches, you put some weight on it and I tore it,” says Richmond. “I’d never had a surgery, I’d never been injured like that before.”

He underwent two MRIs, one in Seoul and the other in Busan, that showed the tear and he says the team sent him back home to Arizona for the surgery, the team saying that was standard practice with foreign players.

Against the advice of his father, who warned him that if he was out of sight he was out of mind, Richmond agreed and even used the medical insurance he has through Major League Baseball to cover the procedure’s cost.

The surgery happened in early February, Richmond immediately began rehab and even visited with the Canadian entry into that spring’s World Baseball Classic, an event the Giants forbade Richmond from participating in. As he built himself back up, he started getting the sense something wasn’t right.

“When I got hurt, the manager came over and was like, ‘No problem, you’re not an import to us, you’re one of us, we’ll get you better, get you back out here, it happened early, no problem,’” says Richmond. “I really realized things were going wrong when I was in America and there was no communication happening.”

The only person Richmond could reach with the Giants was his team-employed translator, whom he communicated with through a Korean chat application similar to WhatsApp.

Richmond stored and printed off all the conversations, and in one dated March 8, the translator tells him that the club’s new CEO “is willing to preserve his signing bonus as a settlement for termination. I know this is really not understandable, but it happens, so please think smart and do not waste time and effort. They already prepared for many scenarios.”

The translator adds in the conversation that there was no chance for Richmond to pitch for the team any longer, and urged him to find another club in the United States.

“The team’s belief is that he’d throw up his hands and walk away,” says Hernandez. “They’re surprised he’s taken it this far.”

Beyond not getting paid, the timing for finding work was bad, too, as big-league teams had just finalized their system-wide rosters. Eventually, when the Rangers’ triple-A affiliate Round Rock began having some injuries, Brad Mills and Nate Robertson recommended Richmond and he signed in early May, making his debut on the 18th.

In 20 starts he posted a 6-7 record with a 5.91 ERA over 112.2 innings. He pitched in another 21 games for Round Rock last year, and this year has been pitching with independent league team Wichita to ready himself for the Pan Ams.

His only communications with the Giants now, he says, is in court.

“They’re saying I came to camp not ready to play, I came out of shape, I came injured and they’re saying I ran on the field recklessly and hurt myself when they told me not to do anything. I’m doing bunt drills -- nobody wants to jump up off the couch and do PFPs if they don’t have to,” says Richmond.

“I was my usual self [with the Giants], outgoing, talking, smiling, trying to do everything the right way. They didn’t want anything of it.”

Hernandez says initial attempts to settle the matter amicably with the Giants were ignored, leading to court, where he says, “it’s definitely a situation where the facts are the strength of the case.”

“The person who suffers the most is the player,” he adds. “He was excited about having a four or five year career there -- this wasn’t a cash grab for him. He would have helped them for sure.”