Local boy makes good - and badBOSTON
Should have, would have, could have -- that is what Kim Byung-hyun’s season had come to as Major League Baseball stood Thursday night on the threshold of a historic match. Recently, another wave of uncertainty had washed over the Boston Red Sox pitcher’s career, misgivings not entirely of his own making, but nevertheless, he appeared to be shouldering the doubt alone.
But there are those who stand with Kim, following Boston’s dramatic loss to New York in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. They say he should have been left in the first game of the American League divisional playoff with Oakland, whom the Red Sox met after snagging a wild card spot. Called in to protect Boston’s 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, Kim had a heroic start, forcing the first batter he faced, Ramon Hernandez, to fly out to short right field. But then the submariner started to flounder. He walked Billy McMillon on four pitches. He hit Chris Singleton. Next, in what looked like the beginning of a classic ninth-inning save Kim struck out Mark Ellis on four pitches. But that was it. Boston’s manager, Grady Little, took Kim out of the game, replacing him with Alan Embree.
Furious, Kim stalked off the field. Close-ups of the anger in his face were beamed throughout ESPN world. Moments later, Embree gave up a single to tie the game. The run was charged to Kim, however, and the Red Sox would go on to lose, 5-4, in 12 innings.
The following afternoon the Red Sox lost 5-1. They were headed back to Boston down by two in a best-of-five series, and Kim’s post-season descent had only just begun.
In the early afternoon calm of the Fenway Park clubhouse, freshly laundered red practice jerseys and white game jerseys hang neatly in Kim’s open locker. The clubhouse is a sacred area of the ballpark, a semi-private retreat free of outsiders. For the moment, Kim finds peace in the training room, where his interpreter and team trainer, Chang Ho-lee, can talk with him openly in Korean, away from reporters covering the Red Sox’s hunt for their first World Series appearance in 85 years.
As is so often the case in situations where confidence sags, a look back can justify aspirations. While growing up in Gwangju, Kim dreamed of playing for the Red Sox. He sported a Red Sox cap, and followed the team religiously. He threw his first pitch in Fenway Park in 1995, in an international tournament.
“I really liked the Green Monster and the rich tradition of the stadium,” Kim says through Chang, speaking of the 11.5-meter (37-foot) high, 74 meter-long Fenway wall. “I was very impressed with it.”
Those who say Kim would have pulled off a save if Little had left him in Game 1 point to some impressive numbers for the 2003 season: 16 saves out of 19 chances, an 8-5 record in 16 starts and a regular-season ERA of 3.22, second only to Pedro Martinez among Boston pitchers.
But Kim is a man with a past. Every time he loses or saves a game his performance is judged in terms of the game-winning home runs he gave up as an Arizona Diamondback to Yankees Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius in Games 4 and 5 of the 2001 World Series. That is something many Red Sox faithful cannot seem to forget.
“It’s ridiculous. They just will not let it go,” says Randy Scott, a Boston baseball guru and longtime Red Sox devotee. “That was a different Yankee team, and two years ago. They are trying to drive him out of town, the same way that they did Jim Rice and Bill Buckner.”
Being an object of derision is not something Kim is used to. Even after his debacle in the 2001 series, Arizona fans embraced him. But Boston is different. Once happy to be here, playing for the team he worshiped as a young boy, Kim is now a target of scorn slung by fans starving for a winner.
This is quite a change from just six months ago when Arizona traded Kim to Boston. Though Red Sox supporters across New England ridiculed the move, ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer called the acquisition “one of the biggest steals since the Houston Astros stole Jeff Bagwell from the Red Sox.”
Theo Epstein, Boston’s 29-year-old general manager, and Little considered their recruit a versatile pitcher who could double as a starter or a closing reliever. “I am a big Kim fan, and we worked very hard to get him,” Epstein said during a late September batting practice. “He gave us quality innings, and then helped us out in June when our bullpen got hurt.”
“I always wanted to be a starter,” Kim said. “In Korea, a starter is a more respected and more desirable position. I do not mind going into the bullpen, if it will help the team to win.”
Others are not as full of praise as Epstein. The New England autumn air has buzzed with rumors that Kim lacked confidence against the Yankees and that he may never even don a Red Sox uniform again.
“The trouble with Kim is that he does not scare batters,” says Debbi Wrobleski, a Boston TV sports reporter with Comcast Channel 8. “He does not get the respect of a Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez or instill that kind of fear in batters.”
But Kim’s troubles in Boston go beyond not being scary. He arrived at Fenway Park on Oct. 4 for Game 3 of the divisional playoff still foul over being pulled out of Game 1. He was in no mood for what was to come.
When the announcer called out Kim’s name, the crowd began booing. When he tipped his cap, the boos got even louder. In a seeming reflex reaction, all of Kim’s anger and frustration spilled out: He raised his right hand, and, for a split second, his middle finger to the crowd. His teammates looked on, astonished. Immediately after the game, which Boston won 3-1, the Red Sox publicity office issued a formal apology, endorsed by Kim. But the media wasted no time taking aim.
“If you cannot stand the heat in the kitchen, get out,” said Jerry Tropiano, the Red Sox radio announcer. “His days with this team are numbered.”
With Boston having failed again this year to reach the World Series, there will be plenty of second guessing Grady’s decisions. And, as so happens in defeat, scapegoats will be flailed. Given the bitter nature of the Red Sox loss, a game-winning home run in the 11th inning, the opprobrium will be especially caustic. Kim, who was taken out of the rotation for the American League championship series, reportedly because of tendonitis, should not expect to escape blame.
Back home in Korea, there is no doubt Kim could have done more to help the Red Sox if given the opportunity. He has turned the Red Sox into Korea’s most popular major league team, as Park Chan-ho once did for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nearly every Red Sox game is aired live on MBC-TV. Heo Sae-hwan, who coached Kim at Kwangju Jeil High School, remembers him as never wanting to quit. “He was playing his last high school game. I offered to pull him. He just shook his head and finished it,” Heo says. When the game was over Kim had fanned 19 batters. “He was quite a person but he hated to lose. He always had confidence about his stuff and when people did not trust him that ticked him off. I think his reaction to the fans was just a reaction from a young guy who got frustrated because he knows he can do the job.”
As the Red Sox entered Game 4, Kim excused himself from the lineup, complaining of a sore shoulder. He had reached a new low with his favorite ball club. On the flight to Oakland, Little learned that Kim was homesick, and uncomfortable with the hardcore Boston fans’ behavior. He was working hard and posting good numbers, but felt he was not getting respect.
Little and Epstein assured Kim that they were behind him and promised he would be in the 2004 season’s starting rotation. Little said that they discussed Kim’s worries - both on and off the field. “The bottom line is he is 24 years old, and he is in a strange place. Even though he has been in the United States a couple of years, there are a lot of things that are new to him.”
Aimee Yoon, 22, a friend of Kim’s, says, “He’s really not the type of guy that would usually insult or offend anyone. He is very shy and always the perfect gentlemen.” Yoon, who is from Seoul, says that in Korea, sticking one’s middle finger up “is not such a big deal.”
“He is sensitive in his personal life, but he is not allowed to be that way professionally,” observes Kim Jong-sung, a professor of management at Boston University who follows the Sox. “I think that the attitude of the fans in Arizona was more like what he was accustomed to in Korea.”
On the morning of Oct. 8, Red Sox brass confirmed that Kim would not be on the playoff roster against New York due to the shoulder injury. Epstein was quick to defend him. In an Oct. 9 Boston Herald article, he said, “I understand the skepticism about the injury. And given the context, it is reasonable for people to come to a different conclusion. But they have my word: This is purely physical. He is going to be here for a long time.”
by Jerald A. Barisano