Only time will tell whether the ultra-aggressive, free-swinging Chae-Ho Chong leaves a lasting imprint on the way baseball is played at Cal State Northridge.
Matador baseball, however, already has left an indelible mark on Chong.
In fact, judging from the body bruises and ever-present black eye he seems to sport, it has left quite a few.
Take, for example, the broken nose Chong suffered last season after being hit by a ball while playing first base against UC Riverside .
Or the hematoma that resulted earlier this season when Chong bunted a ball off his right eye during practice.
Those are just two of the more sanguinary shots that Chong has absorbed since arriving at Northridge by way of Chatsworth High, Arizona State and Valley College.
Call him the Say Hey Kid. As in “Hey, watch out!”
“Chae always seems to find the bad hop that goes right to his face,” said Mark Morton, a Northridge assistant. “He’s the kind of guy that has to play really aggressive. When he tones it down, he tends not to play the way he’s capable.”
Indeed, be it behind the plate as a catcher, playing first base or winding up for a swing in the batter’s box, Chong has the ability to shine.
And no matter where he goes, a shiner is an almost certain souvenir.
“It seems like I’m carrying a bull’s-eye on my head,” Chong said this week before Northridge played University of the Pacific.
After batting .387 overall and .407 in California Collegiate Athletic Assn. play last season, Chong is also searching for the answer to some uncharacteristic difficulties at the plate that have resulted in a .264 average.
A turnaround by Chong would be welcomed by Northridge (13-8-1, 5-6-1 in conference play), which is ranked 12th in Division II and travels to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (14-11, 5-3) today for an important two-game series with the eighth-ranked and conference-leading Mustangs.
“He’s always dangerous,” UC Riverside Coach Jack Smitheran said of Chong. “He’s a competitor who can really hurt you.”
With the bat or on the basepaths.
At 5-foot-11 and a sinewy 195 pounds, Chong, 21, looks the part of a bruiser.
“He’s built like a rock,” Chatsworth Coach Bob Lofrano said. “He’s the kind of guy you want by your side when you’re walking in a dark alley.”
But sitting in the bleachers behind home plate at Matador Field, Chong does not come off as menacing in aviator sunglasses, a CSUN baseball T-shirt and shorts.
The oldest of three boys--Jason, a freshman catcher at Northridge, and Kevin, a senior outfielder at Chatsworth--Chae-Ho (pronounced CHAY-ho) resisted adopting a Western name to preserve his South Korean identity. His name, roughly translated, means “a ball in the summer sky.”
As he reflects upon his upbringing in South Korea and his desire to help Korean immigrants gain the same opportunities he has enjoyed, it is difficult to picture him the brute.
“There are a lot of kids in the Korean community who are abandoned, who are not living the life that I’m living right now,” he said. “I’d like to get these kids together and form a team . . . and help them.”
Chong was an aggressive child--"like a bull in a china shop"--while growing up about 30 miles outside Seoul.
“I guess it’s just in my personality,” he said. “I’m always feisty.”
His fondness for physical contact, he said, did not lessen when his family moved to the Koreatown section of downtown Los Angeles when he was 12.
“I always have had a short temper,” said Chong, whose family moved to Chatsworth in 1980. “That’s been the biggest problem. Ever since I was little, my dad noticed it and was telling me, ‘One of these days,’ it’s going to catch up with me and it’s going to hurt me.
“It seems like every time I get into problems, that’s been the case.”
Chong said that his temper hampered him at Arizona State where he enrolled after batting .406 as a senior at Chatsworth and being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 36th round of the 1985 draft.
Like many of the talented freshmen that Arizona State recruits each year, Chong played for the Sun Devils’ junior varsity throughout much of the fall and spring.
After months of keeping his emotions in check, Chong’s temper flared when he made the last out of a loss to Scottsdale Community College in the spring.
“Our JV team was pretty cocky, so they (Scottsdale players) were all over me,” Chong said. “I ended up taking on the whole team, trying to fight with them.
“The next day, I came out to play and the JV coach said (Arizona State Coach Jim) Brock didn’t want me around anymore.”
Chong stayed in school and was taken back into the program later in the season. He played in the final varsity series against Arizona and collected one hit in four at-bats.
That was his season--and career--as a Sun Devil.
Chong returned to Tempe for his sophomore year, discovered three junior college catchers had been recruited and transferred to Valley for the spring semester.
Chong batted .321 for Valley in 1987 and transferred to Northridge in January, 1988, after completing his associate of arts degree.
As he shoots for a strong finish to his collegiate career and a chance at professional baseball, Chong said that he has his emotions under control.
“I’m working hard to control my temper,” Chong said. “I’m always conscious about it. I’ve learned from my mistakes.”