Starting Over

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Starting Over

In 2001, Park Chan-ho became the first Korean to make Major League Baseball’s All-Star team. Last season, however, Park turned in an uncharacteristic performance, posting a 9-8 record, middling when compared to his 15-11 mark the season before. His earned run average for 2002 was 5.75, also slipping badly from the year before when he recorded 3.50.
What happened?
Before he left Korea for spring training in Arizona, Park consented to a wide-ranging interview at Seoul’s Lotte Hotel. The pitcher, the first Korean to play in the Major Leagues, talked about his preparations for this season and how he handled the worst season in his fine 12-year career.
One of the Park’s trademarks has been his fastball -- clocked at its best at 153 kilometer (95 miles) per hour. The pitch has been Park’s bread and butter and helped carry him to a 89-62 lifetime mark.
Last season, his first with the Texas Rangers since he signed as a free agent in December 2001, the heat seemed to have evaporated. Many experts argue that he depended too much on his curveball, slider and change-up, and that this dependency on those pitches altered his ability to throw the fastball. When this reporter asked whether the fastball had disappeared entirely form his arsenal, Park shook his head.
“This is a very sensitive topic,” he said. “It might sound like an excuse, but the truth is that I had an injury to my left hip that caused pain in my entire left leg. The injury was to a muscle that ran along the length of the leg.”
According to Park, who will turn 30 in June, the injury caused his left leg to be unstable, and since he had always used that leg to push off during his delivery, his entire motion was thrown off.
“Because of the pain I could not fully put my weight on the leg. That was a major problem in the final release stage of my pitching.”
Park said that he normally has a straight left leg during his delivery, but because of the pain, he had to bend the leg. The slight adjustment caused changes in his upper body as well. “At the end, the unstable support down below influenced my control and my speed.”
What about now? Does he expect his fastball to return this season?
Park said that despite the pain he had to go through he was always confident about his throwing abilities. “Last season, I was in real pain, you know? I could not fully concentrate on the batter because of my pain. I heavily taped my leg to ease the pain. But at the same time, I knew that without pain I could do much, much better. In the second half of the season when my pain did decrease, I won five games in a row.”
Park said that he still considers himself a power pitcher. “When I have control of my fastball, I am not afraid of anyone.”
There have been rumors that Park has gone to throwing a slower pitch, a forkball. Waving his hand, Park dismissed that talk. He said that because his change-up drops a lot, it may look like a forkball but it's still a change-up. According to Park, the change is a pitch that took him four years to learn and master.
With a 72-90 record, the Rangers finished the 2002 season last in the American League West division. Part of the problem was a lackluster bullpen that chalked up 32 blown saves, the most by any Major League club.
Nevertheless, Park is optimistic about the upcoming season. He believes that a trial-and-error period for the Rangers is over.
“Our pitching staff is young, and pitchers like Ben Kozlowski are only going to get better. There is a lot of upside potential. If we can build on where we left off in the second half of last season we are definitely going to be better.”
Another reason for Park to be upbeat is that in the off-season the Rangers brought in Ugueth Urbina, who had 40 saves in 46 outings for the Boston Red Sox last season. In addition, Texas also hired Orel Hershiser as pitching coach. Hershiser, a former star with the Dodgers, was a mentor for Park when he made his Major League debut with Los Angeles on April 8, 1994.
Despite the pain he endured, Park said that last season had some personal highs. One was an encounter he had with pitching great Nolan Ryan, whom Park met for the first time during spring training.
“I first heard about Ryan when I read of him in a book in high school.” Park said that he asked the legend to have dinner with him, and Ryan accepted. In that get-together, Ryan suggested that Park run a lot of sprints.
“The next day, I started to run like crazy. Maybe I overdid it. The next day I hurt my thigh while covering first base.” Park said it he then realized that what might work for someone else might not work for him.
During the season, he had another experience that taught him a lot. “After I came back from my injury, I tried to listen to every piece of advice, but the results weren’t always good. You know why? Because I did not believe a hundred percent in my stuff. That’s when I figured that it all starts from me. If I believe and trust in myself, I can be very strong.”
One example of that inner strength was a win over the New York Yankees, whom he beat in the second half of last season. “I did n’t really think about beating the Yankees. I only focused on myself. I went out on the mound and tried to be just myself. That’s how I won.”
Like many athletes Park said he wants to keep playing as long as his body permits. “Right now, I think I can do it until I’m 40. After retirement, I’m thinking about studying law and psychology.”
Periodically, Park has been linked with one Korean beauty or another, but all of the stories, apparently, have been gossip. Park said that any plans for marriage remain in the distant future.
“Every winter I think that I can improve and that I am going to have a better year than the one before. I drive myself so hard and that’s why I have no one. Someday someone might just come along.”

by Lee Tae-il
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