Foreign Mission : Park Hopes to Become First Korean in Majors
Each night before he sleeps, Park Chan Ho from South Korea puts on his headset and turns on his audiocassette tape, awakening each morning with a new sentence or phrase in English to try out on his American counterparts.
He did not, however, learn “Hey, dude” from the tapes. Nor “Hey, man.” Those expressions of pop culture came from Dodger players, who are doing their part in the Americanization of Park.
“I don’t know who taught him to say, ‘Hey, dude,’ but they told him to say hello to me in a team meeting, and he said, ‘Hey, dudu,’ ” Eric Karros said. “I said, ‘It’s not dudu, it’s dude.’ ”
Jim Gott, who trains in the morning with Park in martial arts, recently started teaching him nicknames. But when it came to “Beach,” coach Mark Cresse’s nickname, Gott carefully stressed the long ‘e’.
On Saturday night, the Dodgers held a Western barbecue at Dodgertown, and Park got caught up in the moment, wearing a cowboy hat and bandanna. At one point, he briefly did the twist with Manager Tom Lasorda--to country western music, no less.
But Sunday, Park, a 20-year-old right-hander, unleashed his talent on the mound, pitching in his first game--albeit intrasquad--as a Dodger. It is Park’s fastball that gets the attention, and for good reason--it has been clocked at 99 m.p.h. in South Korea. He didn’t throw that fast Sunday, but he was good enough to get Mike Piazza on a called third strike with a fastball on the outside corner.
“He also has a good curveball, a good slider and a good forkball,” said Ron Perranoski, pitching coach. “I liked how he did today, he mixes pitches and mixes location, and he knows how to handle himself on the mound.”
Park, who faced the regulars, went over a scouting report with Lasorda before the game. But after he walked leadoff batter Delino DeShields, catcher Tom Prince approached the mound to go over signs. Halfway there, he remembered to summon Park’s constant companion, interpreter Don Yi.
“I was a little nervous because I thought Brett Butler was leading off, but it was Delino DeShields,” Park said through an interpreter. “But after I struck out Mike Piazza, I felt more confident.”
Park had a game-high three strikeouts in two innings. Tim Wallach took a called third strike and Raul Mondesi followed with a strikeout swinging.
“He has such great body control, and in his delivery, he drives hard off of his back leg, much like Tom Seaver did,” said Rod Dedeaux, former USC baseball coach who is spending some time at Dodgertown. “The average pitcher doesn’t have the kind of balance that he does. And that high leg kick is deceiving.”
A student of Hapkido martial arts training in his home of South Korea, Park has about five deliveries to the plate.
“You can tell he didn’t grow up pitching in the United States of America,” DeShields said. “The way he changes his delivery, he has different looks, and that is confidence. I’m not an expert, but I think the Dodgers have something here.”
After pitching Sunday, Park didn’t really want to talk with reporters, preferring to think about his performance and talk the next day. Orel Hershiser--who started for the regulars and has taken an active role in helping Park--went over to him after they finished and walked with him to the clubhouse. Hershiser waved to the cheering crowd, Park bowed.
“The only problem we have with Chan Ho is trying to keep him from doing too much,” said Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president.
One day Park got up and started throwing on the sideline, before somebody realized that he shouldn’t. He had thrown the day before.
“He has major league ability, as does (first-round draft pick) Darren Dreifort,” Claire said. “To have two young arms like that means a lot to this organization. That’s exciting.”
Park’s workout schedule here is less rigid than in South Korea, but he still gets tired.
“The feeling that I have to do well and also the weather, makes me a little tired,” Park said. “In Korea, it’s still winter, and here, it’s like the middle of summer. I don’t really feel pressure, but the idea that I have to succeed is always with me, so I feel like I have to try a little harder.”
Signing with the Dodgers and leaving his country, where he was considered the best amateur, was difficult. But the eventual $1.2 million bonus negotiated for him by a distant uncle, Steve Kim of Los Angeles, made it all the more enticing.
“It was a hard decision because I would be on my own and have to succeed on my own, but I realize now that there are a lot of people here to help me,” Park said. “Also, I have thought about the United States--the Los Angeles area--ever since I pitched here in 1991. So, it was like coming to a second home.”
Dodger scout Bobby Darwin and scouting director Terry Reynolds first saw Park pitch in 1991 during a tournament at Dodger Stadium between the United States, Japan and South Korea. It was then Park also saw his first game at Dodger Stadium.
“I remember I was sitting on the fifth level of Dodger Stadium, and I almost fell over when Brett Butler leaned over the fence and robbed a home run,” he said.
Even with Park’s consent, it wasn’t easy for the Dodgers to sign him. In South Korea, every man must fulfill a two-year military obligation, which is deferred for students. When the Dodgers contacted Park, who was a sophomore at Han Yang University, he called Kim, who is an L.A. architect. Kim enlisted the help of Dodger President Peter O’Malley, who visited with officials in South Korea, trying to persuade them of the positive aspects of letting Park go.
“My first trip to Korea, the answer was no, then the second time I went there, the answer was no, then the third time, it changed,” Kim said. ". . . Chan Ho will continue to be enrolled in school, which will defer him in the military. But we didn’t have to pay money to anybody in Korea to get approval.”
The Atlanta Braves were also interested in Park, telling Kim they would match any offer, but Kim said Park wanted to sign with the Dodgers.
“It’s easier for him in L.A., and Peter O’Malley showed a lot when he went to Korea to meet with officials,” Kim said. “We felt it was the right place for him.”
If Park makes it to the major leagues, he will be the first Korean to do so. Chul Soon Park signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1979, but advanced only as far as double A.
“My primary goal is to make it to the majors, and beyond that, I want to be known as a great baseball player in the United States,” Park said. “This is a great opportunity and if there is a way, I would prefer for it to happen quickly.”