[The Spin]Cho takes a long and winding road back to mound
For years, sports pages were probably the last section of a newspaper where you would find the name of Cho Sung-min, now the right-handed pitcher of the Hanwha Eagles. Try entertainment or the gossip pages. But after getting his first win as a starter in five years on Tuesday, giving up two runs in five innings, Cho was on the cover of major sports papers and a top sports story in others.
Here’s hoping he stays in the papers and in our minds.
For the sake of this column, let’s revisit the tale of Cho.
Now 34, Cho was a top prospect out of high school, but despite lucrative offers from Korean professional teams, he opted to go to college in Seoul, then made his professional debut in 1996 with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan.
He was an all-star one season, but tore a ligament in his pitching elbow during that All-Star Game (of all places), then had to call it a career by 2002.
If we’d stopped hearing from Cho right then and there, he would have been featured in a series of “where are they now” and “what might have been” documentaries.
As it happened, the story was just beginning.
After his playing career was over, Cho’s personal life got even messier. His marriage in 2000 to Choi Jin-sil, who happened to be one of Korea’s most popular entertainers, was falling apart. After a much-publicized and acrimonious breakup in 2004, Cho kept a low profile before resurfacing as a baseball color commentator for a cable station the following year.
That’s when Kim In-sik, the manager of the Eagles, called Cho and essentially told him, “Hey, you don’t belong in the booth. I am putting you on my team, so get ready.”
So there was Cho, back on the mound as a reliever for the Eagles in May 2005, and going 2-2 with a 6.52 earned run average. After an injury-riddled season last year, Cho is back pitching again, this time as a spot starter. He is 1-1 with a respectable 3.38 ERA.
Having watched Cho when he was a high school phenom, I feel disappointment seeing him today. Just imagine what must be going through his mind whenever someone brings up Park Chan-ho, the first Korean to play in the U.S. major league.
When Cho and Park were both in high school, Park was nowhere near the prospect that Cho was. Believe me, every casual baseball fan knew who Cho Sung-min was in the early 1990s.
But what about now? Cho is barely holding onto his starting spot in the Korean league. Park isn’t much better off, toiling in the minor leagues for the New York Mets, but at least Park has 113 major league wins and, according to baseball-reference.com, almost $82 million in career salary.
After elbow and shoulder ailments, Cho is no longer able to throw 95-mph fastballs. He’s well aware of that, saying after that Tuesday game, “I knew I wasn’t going to blow it past anyone, so I tried to get outs on contact.”
Han Yong-deok, his pitching coach, noted that Cho’s shoulder is improving, and while he may not start every five days, “Cho will get plenty of other opportunities on the mound.”
After all that he’s gone through, that’s probably more than Cho can ask for.
*“The Spin” appears Mondays and Fridays in the JoongAng Daily.
By Yoo Jee-ho Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]