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

April 03, 1994|JAKE DOHERTY and SEAN WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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."

*

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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