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Dodgers to Debut With ‘Chan Ho-Mania’ : Baseball: Rookie pitcher is already instilling pride among Korean Americans.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With every scorching fastball that mows down an opposing batter and every respectful bow to a bemused umpire, 20-year-old Dodger pitcher Chan Ho Park gives the city’s Korean American community something to cheer about after a long period of adversity.

Park, who was picked for the Dodger roster last week, will be the first Korean to play major league baseball in the United States. Major league baseball starts its regular season today and the Dodgers’ home opener is Tuesday against the Florida Marlins.

Much like the exuberant pride among Latinos caused by the extraordinary prowess of a 20-year-old rookie pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, excitement is rising like a 94 m.p.h. fastball among Koreans and Korean Americans.

Could it be Chan Ho-mania?

“He’s been the talk of the town since he came to L.A.,” said Harrison Kim, executive director of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce.

“From elementary school students to old people, there’s much interest in Chan Ho Park,” said Tom Byun, managing editor of the Los Angeles edition of the Korea Times.

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Indeed, it is hard to find anyone of Korean descent who has not at least heard of Chan Ho Park. (He is known as Park Chan Ho in Korean, which traditionally places the family name before the given name. But Park now defers to the customary American name order to avoid confusion.) In Los Angeles, Korean-language newspapers, radio stations and television newscasts follow his progress religiously.

Even so, some fans cannot get enough.

“I’ve had lots of calls. They want to know everything about him,” Byun said. “When is the next time he will go to the mound? What kind of food does he (eat), Korean food or hamburgers? Does he have a girlfriend? For the first time ever, we sent a reporter to Vero Beach to cover spring training.”

The Dodgers’ ticket sales office, though declining to divulge any numbers, confirms the heightened interest in tickets in the Korean American community.

“Every single Korean American I talk with wants to know how Chan Ho is doing, even the non-baseball fans,” said Allan Erselius, the Dodgers’ director of ticket marketing. “We’ve noticed a lot of activity from Koreatown. I’ve spoken with people who said they bought season tickets just so they can see Chan Ho pitch.”

“We talk about Mr. Park all the time, and everyone wants to go to Dodger Stadium,” said Young Bai, who runs the Han Bo Golf & Tennis sports shop in the Koreatown Plaza. “I don’t know much about baseball but he’s Korean and he’s there, so I want to go.

“Every day when I come home, two of my sons, one in junior high and one in elementary school, say to me: ‘I want to be a pro player.’ ”

Byun said the news that Park will be on the Dodgers’ roster Tuesday was reported “in the Korea Times in South Korea, and we heard that people there are just delighted. In Los Angeles and Orange County and Ventura County, many Koreans are saying they want to go to Dodger Stadium or will be watching the games on TV. Some people are even talking about organizing a Chan Ho Park fan club.”

Kim said no one expected Park “to make the majors this quick. We expected him to work out with the team in spring training and then go to the minors. It’s real exciting.”

The Dodgers have been marketing the team in the Korean American and other ethnic communities for the past few years and joined the Korean American Chamber of Commerce as a corporate member. “We want everyone to feel welcome at Dodger Stadium all the time,” Erselius said.

The past four years, KBLA 1580 AM, better known as Radio Korea, has broadcast about seven Dodgers games each season in Korean. This year, in addition to those games, the station plans to broadcast any game in which Park is to pitch, reporter Duncan Suh said .

What if Park is used as a relief pitcher rather than a starter? “We encourage our listeners to get season tickets,” Suh said.

Park, who grew up in Kong Ju, about 60 miles south of Seoul, is also big news in South Korea. A spring training game he pitched against the Montreal Expos on March 26 was broadcast in South Korea, causing a rather nervous outing by the young pitcher. (Park struggled through five innings, but the Dodgers came out on top, 5-3.)

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The Dodgers first noticed Park, a high school and college all-star, during an amateur tournament here in 1991 and monitored his progress during last year’s Asian Games and World University Games. Dedicated to baseball since elementary school, Park saw the payoff for his hard work when the Dodgers signed him in January for $1.2 million.

In Koreatown, Kim said, excitement was high as people waited for word on whether Park would make the team, predicting that “you’ll see a swarm of people headed to the ticket office” now that he has made the roster.

Although adults seem more excited than children, several Korean American students at the Koreatown Wilshire YMCA recognized Park’s name. “I’ve heard about him,” said Sammy So, 12. “It makes me feel good that he’s Korean and playing for the Dodgers.”

Edward Chang, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, said Park’s success “could be a source of pride and solidarity for Koreans,” but worries that the pressure might be “too great for a 20-year-old rookie from Korea not accustomed to all the details of American culture.”

Hye Shin Kang, a radio reporter for the Korean-language FM-Seoul (KFOX 93.5), said her audience is divided on Park: “Some people are really excited and want him to move ahead as fast as possible, and some people think he’s moving too fast and needs to work in the minor leagues first so he’ll be better prepared for the future.”

The Korean-language media tried to be cautious about his prospects in order not “to get expectations too high,” Chang said. But, he said, if Park lives up to his early promise, “it could be similar to Fernando-mania for Koreans.”

Erselius said comparisons between Valenzuela as a rookie and Park are inevitable--"young, foreign-born pitchers with lots of potential"--but hesitates to predict a repeat of the kind of hoopla generated by Valenzuela.

“Fernando really caught the imagination of all of Los Angeles,” not just the Mexican American community, Erselius said. “Everyone wanted to root for the kid. He had charisma. Hopefully, Chan Ho will be like that, but it’s premature to make any comparisons.”

Nevertheless, Park made a big impression in the Korean community during his brief stay in Los Angeles before he headed off to spring training.

“He went around and introduced himself, and everyone had a positive reaction to him as a person,” Kim said. “He seemed very nice and was constantly smiling. He seems to represent many of the good aspects of the Korean culture and personality.”

In the education unit at the Korean Youth and Community Center, staff members cut Park’s photo out of a newspaper and posted it on a wall. “We’re really proud of him,” said staff member Robert Cho.

Modest yet confident, Park said he has been concentrating on making the team rather than thinking about the reactions of his fans. In the process, he is learning English but speaks to his teammates through an interpreter.

“Fernando-mania was possible because Fernando was good,” Park said from Florida after practice last week. “I’m working hard to be good. Then, if there’s Chan Ho-mania, that would be great.”

As for being a role model, Park said: “I’m working hard to be in that position in the future.”

At 6-foot-2, and 185 pounds, Park also breaks down some stereotypes about Asian men. “I think it’s good for Americans to see a big Asian guy pitching and striking out pro ball players,” Suh said.

Chang agrees. “It could be a good psychological boost for Asian American men because he counters the ‘nerd’ image.”

Eui-Young Yu, a sociology professor at Cal State Los Angeles, said that by being an integral part of a multiracial team, Park could “probably help improve the perception of Koreans in Los Angeles.”

The 1990 census counted more than 200,000 people of Korean descent in Southern California; unofficial estimates put the total at twice that. For many, especially small-business owners, the American dream has been battered by the 1992 riots, crime, a sluggish economy and the Northridge earthquake. But as Park chases his dream, he has provided a welcome distraction and a chance to consolidate rooting interests: a Korean hero playing for the home team in the most American of sports.

Park said he has already received fan mail from young Korean Americans. “Mostly they tell me to work hard and succeed and they tell me that they talk about me at school. And they ask me for my autograph,” he said.

Park, who studied and played at Hanyang University in Seoul, reminds his young fans not to neglect their studies. “Basic education has to be fulfilled in order for a person to be a good ballplayer,” he said. “Otherwise, you can’t be considered a true gentleman athlete.”

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As for his own gentlemanly ways, Park said he will continue to bow to umpires. It is perhaps the one element of his cultural upbringing that Park would like to impart to his teammates: “We should respect our elders.”

Some local baseball card shops report that although they do not yet have Park’s card--rookie cards usually are not printed and distributed until later in the season--they have had some inquiries, and not all from Korean fans.

Alex Murillo, coach of a baseball team for boys 13 to 16 at the West Wilshire Recreation Center, said he and many of his young Latino players are excited about Park.

“Why should it matter if he’s Korean? He’s a respectful kid and he can pitch the ball. He could be rookie of the year. When my players see a young guy like him play for the Dodgers, they believe in themselves more.”


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