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Park Tries to Live Up to Rangers' Expectations

March 19, 2003|Ross Newhan

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Much of it is conjecture, speculation, guesses that may be educated or not.

Jilted by the Dodgers, richly rewarded by the Texas Rangers, culturally challenged again in the land of chicken-fried steak, Chan Ho Park had a 9-8 record and a 5.75 earned-run average in last year's disappointing debut.

Now, it is as if the analysts have never been satisfied that he aggravated a spring hamstring strain in his first start of the regular season, tried to pitch through it, and was never 100%.

It is as if there must have been more to it, even if a knowledgeable Texas pitching coach named Orel Hershiser says the injury was comparable to trying to adjust a camera or rifle on an unstable tripod -- "When you don't have your legs, you don't have your velocity and command."

Park calls it, "the worst thing to happen in my baseball life."

"I couldn't perform the way I wanted and it was confusing and frustrating, especially because I was with a new team in a new league," he said. "I had never been injured before."

Well, he had, but his two stints on the disabled list -- one for the hamstring and the other for a persistent blister -- were his first since 1995 at Albuquerque, his first as a major leaguer.

Still, there is that speculation:

* Did Park give in to the pressure and expectations of his five-year, $65-million contract after being rejected by the Dodgers, who privately questioned his fortitude?

* Did this latest cultural adjustment disrupt his focus?

* Was he, perhaps, simply a creation of Dodger Stadium, where he had a 42-24 record and 2.98 ERA compared to 4.74 on the road?

* Did he sacrifice velocity, as the speed guns suggest, throwing too many fastballs while pitching a minimum of 192 innings a year and posting a 75-49 record in his last five years in Los Angeles?

Maybe there isn't a simple answer.

Maybe a little of all of it compounded the injury.

One certainty is that the Rangers' overall concern has been heightened during a spring in which Park was pounded in two Cactus League appearances, giving up 10 hits and 11 runs in 4 2/3 innings. He then pitched four shutout innings against minor leaguers in a camp game before working 4 2/3 innings, giving up three hits and one run, against Oakland on Monday, when a chill wind favored the pitchers. .

The company line, as it often is with struggling pitchers in the spring, is that Park has simply had trouble locating his command and refining his mechanics while striving to regain the form that contributed to a 5-2 record in his last eight starts last year.

However, Manager Buck Showalter has refrained from naming the 29-year-old Park as his opening-night pitcher against the Angels. The manager hasn't made it official, but the rotation is set up to have the much traveled Ismael Valdes start.

"A work in progress," Showalter said of Park, then added pointedly, "For us to catch lightning this year, he'll obviously have to do better. He'll have to come back to what he was."

What he was, for example, while winning 18 games for the Dodgers in 2000, or going 15-11 in 2001, when he led the National League in starts, 35, and was third in innings, 234, and strikeouts, 218, but weakened down the stretch.

That was the 2001 span in which Manager Jim Tracy, in the pressure of a title race, controversially disrupted Park's customary pattern by calling on him to make his first relief appearance in five years.

The Dodgers then raised private concerns about Park's backbone, ultimately deciding they would not re-sign a pitcher they perceived to be too sensitive to handle the intangibles inherent in a rotation leadership role.

Fortitude? Leadership? Chad Kreuter, Park's regular catcher with the Dodgers and now trying to win a job with the Rangers as a free agent, shook his head and said much of that was "unfair and unfortunate."

Kreuter said the Dodgers:

* Allowed the contract speculation in Park's free-agent walk year to disrupt his focus, causing a situation in which "both sides were left with a bitter taste" and the club lost a successful pitcher "whose record alone made him a leader."

* Smeared Park's ability to handle pressure when, in fact, "He's dealt with the type pressure that would have caused most people to fold."

Kreuter referred to Park's successful adjustment to a new country and culture while carrying the considerable expectations and media scrutiny of South Korea, where "he is similar to Elvis or Michael [Jackson and/or Jordan]. That's why I think the injury was more of a factor here than any pressure from the contract."

Perhaps, but there were obvious expectations accompanying the contract and there was more culture shock as Park left a large Korean community in Los Angeles for a home on the less diverse range. The offense-minded Rangers averaged 5.2 runs, but neither Park -- hobbled emotionally as well as physically? -- nor his team was able to take advantage.

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