ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The top half of the Dodgers' Asian equation has received 99.9% of the attention this season, while its younger, lesser known member toils in the heat of New Mexico.
"To play for Dodgers is my dream, I working very hard to learn," Chan Ho Park said in passable English the other night, after an impressive outing for the Albuquerque Dukes.
For those who have been wondering, in these days of Nomomania, whatever became of Chan Ho Park, he's gone to pitching school.
And he's doing fine with his undergraduate course load in the Pacific Coast League, under baseball professors Rick Dempsey, his manager, and Burt Hooton, his pitching coach.
Seems odd to recall now that Chan Ho Park actually beat Hideo Nomo to Los Angeles. The Dodgers, with a $1.2-million bonus check, signed him as a 20-year-old 18 months ago--he recently turned 22. What they got was a South Korean with great tools but who had essentially only high school experience.
He should be compared to Nomo--who got $2 million up front when the Dodgers signed him in February--only in a geographical context, as Park himself recently pointed out.
In other words, they both come from Far Eastern nations and both are right-handed. Period.
In Nomo, the Dodgers acquired an established, 26-year-old big league pitcher from Japan. In Park, they obtained a 6-foot, 185-pound Korean kid with big league pitches, but not the faintest idea what to do with them.
In a brief stint with the Dodgers last year and later at double-A San Antonio and now triple-A Albuquerque, Park is still getting over the shock of one facet of American baseball: home runs.
At first, he says, he was shocked at the strength of American hitters. In Korean baseball, he said, hitters are more polite. They hit singles.
"I'm more confident now, but at first American hitters seemed so powerful to me," he said.
"I know I can beat these American hitters, but have to learn harder. . . . In Korea, hitters have mostly same style. Here, every hitter is different."
Park--in Korean, surnames come first, as in Park Chan Ho. But he wants to be known here as Chan Ho Park--had one of his better outings in Albuquerque on a 90-degree evening last Friday.
He beat Phoenix, 12-3, cruising through six innings, baffling hitters with his high leg kick and well-placed fastballs, hard curves and changeups. He walked five.
In 14 starts, Park is 4-4 with an earned-run average of 4.33. He has 69 strikeouts in 70 2/3 innings. But he also has given up 51 walks and is tipping off his changeup.
So, a mixed return after a season and a half.
"All things considered, we're happy with what the kid has done," Dempsey said.
"He's inconsistent and he had a long stretch this season where he was walking too many hitters, but he's bounced back. Remember, you're talking about a young guy from another country who's learning another language, another culture, a different kind of baseball, different food, the travel . . . "
Hooton believes that had Park been born in the United States, he might be a major leaguer now.
"With his tools [he has a 95-m.p.h. fastball]? Yeah, he'd probably be in the majors now," he said. "He'd be further along than the other young pitchers in the organization."
This was right after the Friday outing, when Park, seemingly headed for a shutout, suddenly lost command in the seventh inning. Tiring in the heat, he gave up a single, a walk and a double. He also stumbled off the mound after one pitch.
When he was pulled, Albuquerque was leading, 11-1.
"I told him after we took him out if he thinks this is hot, wait'll he pitches a day game in St. Louis in late August or September," Hooton said.
"This is just part of the learning process--learning how to pitch well when he's tired, learning how to raise his concentration level on every pitch, knowing what he's trying to do with every pitch and not overthrowing when he's tired."
Hooton has had several long talks with Park, which can be an adventure in itself. The Dodgers supplied an interpreter last year but this season Park asked to be left on his own, figuring he would pick up English faster by himself.
Park has reached the point where he can almost complete a sentence, but seems invariably to get hung up on one word. Even with an occasional interpreter, something often seems to be missing.
For example, in his triple-A debut this season, against Colorado Springs, he was hammered. He gave up four walks, three hits and was yanked after throwing 78 pitches in three innings.
Asked what happened, his answer came out this way: "My skin is dry."
Park had his best game at Phoenix earlier in the season, when he took a one-hitter into the eighth inning.
"Then we blew the game for him with a bunch of infield errors," Dempsey said.
Hooton said that young pitchers tend to be too satisfied with themselves when they do well and too unhappy when they don't.