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Texas Is Park's New Blue Heaven


Chan Ho Park dodged the issue, and why not? The Texas Rangers had made him one of the richest players in baseball, so Park simply smiled when asked to describe the disappointment of the Dodgers abandoning him to free agency without bothering to offer him a contract.

At a news conference in Texas on Saturday, Park responded graciously. He saluted former Dodger owner Peter O'Malley, who brought him from South Korea to Southern California. He acknowledged the Dodger staff and his teammates, and he thanked the fans who had embraced him.

"I'd like to say good luck to them, but I am fine here," he said.

The cap still is blue, but no longer will Park enjoy the luxury of flourishing in the shadow of Kevin Brown. The Rangers officially signed Park on Saturday, to a five-year contract that guarantees him $65 million and could be worth $71 million. For that money, they expect him to be the ace who matches up with--and defeats--the likes of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Pedro Martinez.

Clemens and Mussina are the only American League pitchers whose average annual salary exceeds that of Park's $13 million.

"He's the ace we've been looking for," Texas first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said.

The Rangers finished last in the AL West in 2000, with the worst earned-run average in the major leagues. They spent $252million on shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who led the league in homers, and another $14 million on fellow free agents Ken Caminiti and Andres Galarraga. They spent nothing on pitching, again finished last and posted the worst ERA in the majors.

Under new General Manager John Hart, the Rangers have now traded for firebrand reliever John Rocker and guaranteed $84 million to Park, relievers Jay Powell and Todd Van Poppel and swingman Dave Burba.

Park went 15-11 with a 3.50 ERA for the Dodgers last season, ranking third in the league in strikeouts and innings pitched, trailing Arizona's Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

The Dodgers, haunted by injuries last season to Brown, Andy Ashby and Darren Dreifort--starting pitchers with guaranteed contracts worth a combined $183 million--failed to offer Park a long-term contract. In fact, the Dodgers internally floated the possibility of trading him for prospects last July, when they believed Park would seek $20million a year, a price the team had no intention of approaching. By losing him to free agency, the Dodgers' compensation is limited to two draft picks.

Park did not get $20 million a year from the Rangers, who balked when agent Scott Boras reportedly proposed a seven-year contract. But Brown was 33 when the Dodgers signed him, as was Ashby. Park will be 33 when he completes the five-year contract with Texas, and he never has spent time on the disabled list.

"I think we're going to enjoy the best years of a young pitcher's life," Hart said.

That was music to the ears of Texas hitters. The Rangers' powerful offense was rendered irrelevant last season by a starting rotation in which one pitcher had an ERA below 5.00. So, when Texas owner Tom Hicks asked veterans to restructure their contracts to accommodate the signing of Park, Palmeiro and Rodriguez were two of several who agreed.

"They came to me and asked if I had any flexibility, and I said I'm a gymnast if that's what it takes to get pitchers," Rodriguez said.

The Rangers covered themselves in case of serious injury to Park this season. They can opt out of the contract before Nov. 10, allowing him to become a free agent again next winter. If they wish to retain him for the balance of the contract, they must pay a $6-million bonus.

The Associated Press and contributed to this report.

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