AR-News: Article on Baseball Player Who Killed Osprey

Pat Wolff wolffnm at yahoo.com
Sun Jul 13 18:49:08 EDT 2003


Osprey's killer regrets his 'terrible mistake'

By Charles Robinson 
Sentinel Staff Writer 
July 13, 2003 
 
LANSING, Mich. -- He seems nervous. And he can't stop
talking about America.

How he adores the beach, the food, the hip-hop music.
About how happy he is here, and how it's all he ever
wanted. At first, the patriotic overtures make no
sense.

But then it becomes clear -- Jae Kuk Ryu is
campaigning. He wants to stay. Sitting recently in the
dugout of his minor-league team, he seems very much
afraid he might get kicked out.

To understand this paranoia, flash back to April 21.
Ryu, then 19, is a pitcher for the Daytona Cubs. He
stands in the outfield of Daytona Beach's Jackie
Robinson Ballpark, eyeing an osprey in the distance.
In Ryu's right hand, he's squeezing a baseball.

Not just any baseball -- the baseball. The one he now
calls a "terrible mistake."

When Ryu finally spoke for the first time about his
regrets, 64 days had passed since he clutched five
knuckles around his mistake and let it fly. If he had
a wish, he now says it would never have left his grip.
But like the aim of a baseball, reality can be cruel.
And Ryu's cruel mistake became a hurling missile
sending "Ozzy" -- the ballpark's male osprey --
crashing to the Daytona Beach turf. One bomb of
stitched leather bloodied the bird's head and blinded
an eye.

Six days later, it died. And Ryu was forced to
contemplate how delicate ambition can be.

"I like America very much," he says through a man
named Tae Yi, his South Korean interpreter. With this,
Ryu stops, seemingly to find the right words, and
leans in for emphasis. "That was my dream when I was
young, to play in America. I love America. I want to
tell everybody now that I have seen it here, I am
going to love America always and do my best playing
baseball here."

This happens when a player has been demoted for making
a nationally scorned mistake. At a time angry people
point a finger and utter "murderer." When seemingly
every sunrise offers e-mails seeking deportation or
banishment from baseball. When letters arrive, simply
to let Ryu know somebody wishes him dead. When all
people want to know is why he did it -- a question
even he couldn't answer two months later.

"I want people to know me inside, not just the
outside," he said speaking through Yi, despite orders
from his major-league parent club Chicago Cubs to
refuse questions about the subject. (The Chicago Cubs
are owned by Tribune Co., parent of the Orlando
Sentinel.) "I want everyone to know I'm not a bad
person.

"There were some difficult things [after the bird was
hit], but in my mind, I did something wrong. I feel
bad. I want to get over it, but it takes time. I know
that. I just want to gain the trust of fans again."

He shrugs. After gallons of venom, faith seems bound
to come in teaspoons.

Truth gets twisted

In a way, the events of April 21 have become urban
legend. Measurements became skewed, facts blurred,
details invented. When the truth seemed clear, the
bottom dropped out like a breaking ball.

Reports claimed ospreys were classified as endangered.
Or that they were a "species of special concern" -- a
designation declaring an element of danger for
wildlife. But ospreys in Volusia County are considered
plentiful and fall under neither red flags. There were
claims the bird was knocked off the nest on a 40-foot
pole. In fact, Ozzy was perching on a 25-foot utility
crossbar. People in parts of the Cubs minor-league
system heard Ryu had to be rushed off the field under
a storm of fan outrage. In truth, he was demoted by
the time most fans knew about the incident.

Then there was the most erroneous: That Ozzy was
killed in front of a partially packed stadium. But
Jackie Robinson Ballpark was closed when it happened.
No adults. No children. Just empty seats, devoid of
the horrified crowd that became a figment of national
misinformation.

The one universal truth -- perhaps the only important
thing -- is that Ryu threw the ball that killed Ozzy.
For those who witnessed it, it was undeniable. It
started as a session of stretching and batting
practice for the Port St. Lucie Mets and Daytona Cubs.
At some point, Mets trainer Chad Efron focused his
attention on a player standing in the outfield,
whipping a ball past a bird perched on a utility pole.

"What is that idiot doing?" Efron thought, as some
Mets shouted at Ryu to stop.

"He just kind of smirked," Efron recalled. "He knew
what he was doing. He would throw the ball, and then
he would turn around to see if anyone was watching."

Minutes later, in what players told investigators from
the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
was Ryu's fourth attempt, a ball struck Ozzy in the
head, eventually sending him plummeting onto the
right-field warning track. And leaving Efron and other
Mets players to confront Ryu, who crouched over the
bird and shook his head.

"Why did you do that?" Efron screamed. "Why are you
looking at it like you don't know what you just did?"

Bird's death fuels fury

Two days later, Ryu would be stopped from boarding a
team bus for a road trip. He was being demoted to the
Lansing Lugnuts -- the Chicago Cubs' lowest
minor-league affiliate.

At the time, it was one of the most bizarre incidents
in a strange baseball season -- one that has included
fans running onto the field to attack a coach and this
week a giant sausage getting hit with a bat during a
mascot race.

What followed Ryu's mistake was a ferocious onslaught
of public outcry. The wildlife commission, which is
charging him with a second-degree misdemeanor for the
attack, had its phones jammed with calls. Letters and
e-mails overflowed. The Daytona Cubs? Every voice-mail
box was filled with angry messages. When Ozzy died six
days after the attack, fury recycled.

The official death was listed as septic shock, brought
on by a burst liver abscess. In the wild, the abscess
would have eventually become deadly on its own. But it
was Ryu's ball that kick-started the death.

"There's no way Jae Kuk Ryu could have stayed here and
played ball," said Lt. Bill Hightower, who handled the
investigation for the wildlife commission. "The Cubs
even had death threats on this boy. Death threats
because the boy hit an osprey. It's a bad situation,
but death threats to a human because of a bird? I'm
sorry now, people. We even had a county official in an
adjoining county make a comment -- something to the
effect that '[Ryu] needs to have a black eye, too, and
if somebody needs me to do it, I'll do it for them.'"

Somewhere in the storm, Ryu stopped leaving his
apartment. He began having trouble eating and
sleeping. Yi, who had known him for two years, had
never seen him so upset.

"It was kind of frustrating," Yi said. "He made a
mistake. I know that. He knows that. He feels really
bad about it -- sincerely. And I feel bad, too, you
know? I wish I would have stopped him out there. But
we're human beings. We made a mistake."

Whether Ryu will be able to live down his mistake, Yi
can only shrug and hope.

Leaving Seoul for a dream

There are moments when he seems impossibly immature.
Times when it is easy to realize Jae Kuk Ryu is still
just a kid. Take away his 6-foot-3, 210-pound stature.
Remove the $1.6 million bonus he got as a draft pick.
Forget his mastery of three pitches, including a 96
mph fastball.

Instead, just listen.

Hear him tell you about growing up in Seoul, South
Korea, and leaving his family behind to pursue his
dream. About how he gets homesick, and calls his
parents every day. Watch him talk about music, and
bare his chipped tooth while stretching into a broad
smile, anchoring a round, soft face. Listen closely to
his hobbies -- eating, sleeping and playing on the
computer -- all childlike in nature.

Yet, he's not naive. He knows his past will follow.
The Chicago Cubs? They just want the whole thing to go
away.

"It's water under the bridge now," said Oneri Fleita,
director of player development for the franchise.
"It's happened, and a lot has happened since then."

Deed hounds pitcher

But the State Attorney's Office is still pursuing the
second-degree misdemeanor charge for Ryu's attack. And
although his latest court date was postponed until
Julyƒ|29, prosecutors are expected to push for the
maximum $500 fine and some type of community service.
He's being watched by animal-rights groups, including
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has
vigorously lobbied for Ryu's prosecution.

"I'm sorry he has received death threats," said
Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist with PETA. "I'm
sorry some people don't know how to address something
in a polite and constructive way. But he should not
have done what he did. I think people take it pretty
personally to have some 19-year-old punk baseball
player think it funny or amusing to try and kill one
of these things."

So this is the price. Even with success, his critics
are not far behind.

Criticism followed Ryu from Daytona Beach to Lansing,
where he earned a 6-1 record and promotion to the
Class AA West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx two weeks ago.
Even with the Lugnuts, where he mastered Midwest
League hitters with a 1.75 earned-run average in 11
starts, threats continued.

"Just a few days ago, a guy typed up a letter and sent
it in an envelope," Lugnuts manager Julio Garcia said
in June. "He said he prayed [Ryu] got hit in the head
with a ball and was killed."

Yet there is a two-fold silver lining. First in the
form of finances from the Daytona Cubs, who raised
$4,996 in response to Ryu's attack. The money was
split between four nonprofit organizations. And second
in the form of Ryu's contrition.

"I regret it a lot," he said through Yi. "I wish it
never happened. But it did happen."

And if he could say something to people in Florida?
Those who loved Ozzy?

"I made a terrible mistake," Ryu offered. "I know
that. I am very upset about that. I made the mistake,
so I am going to take the punishment -- whatever
comes.

"I want to say to people that I am very sorry."

Asked whether such an apology is enough, Yi shrugs.

"Probably not," he said. "But time goes by."

Charles Robinson can be reached at
crobinson at orlandosentinel.com. 

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/orl-asec-sptozzy071303,0,5915423.story?coll=orl-news-headlines

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