[SPORTS STAR]Starting pitcher for Lotte looks past MVP honors

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[SPORTS STAR]Starting pitcher for Lotte looks past MVP honors

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In a baseball league that does not have an award honoring the seasons’ top pitchers ― Major League Baseball presents the Cy Young Award for best pitchers each year in the American and National Leagues ― the most valuable player award in the Korea Baseball Organization is the highest honor bestowed upon the game’s finest hurlers.
So when Lotte Giants starter Son Min-han, the 179 centimeter (5.9 feet), 85 kilogram (187 pounds) right hander, was voted the 2005 MVP last month to become just the eighth pitcher to win the award in the league’s 24-year history, one would think he could not have asked for much more in his career.
Wrong.
“First, I want to finish my career in a Giants uniform,” the 30-year-old said. “Then, I want to win the championship as a Giant, and someday work in some coaching capacity with the Giants.”
That’s not all. Son, whose injury-plagued career kept him from trying out in the U.S. major leagues, wants to remain healthy the rest of his career, no matter how many years he may have left in him.
“I’ve suffered so much, both physically and mentally, through injuries over the years,” he said. “I know those pains so well that if I get hurt again, I don’t know if I will be able to recover.”
Son’s right shoulder troubles first occurred in an exhibition game on a rainy day as a third-year starting pitcher for Korea University. At first, Son assumed it was just a strain.
“We pitchers know our bodies, and we usually can tell whether certain parts are really hurt or not,” he said. “I figured I would be okay if I rested it a couple of days. But days turned into weeks, and nothing improved.”
He opted for surgery in October of 1997, at the conclusion of his rookie season with the Giants and almost two years after he first felt a twinge in his pitching arm. The three-year rehabilitation process was grueling enough, but knowing he had left behind more than just a start to his professional career added insult to the injury.
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In 1996, Son was contacted by sports agent Don Nomura, who engineered Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo’s multimillion-dollar deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. Since he hadn’t been drafted by any Korean baseball clubs at the time, Son was free to choose whichever team he wanted to play for, or whoever wanted him.
“It was basically a done deal; I just needed to sign on the sheet,” Son recalled. “But I changed my mind a week before some Dodgers officials were to fly in from LA. It would have been foolish even to try for the majors with such a bad shoulder.”
Son has three years left in his current contract with the Giants, meaning he can’t test the overseas market until after the end of the 2008 season.
But for someone who has come so close to pitching in the majors, Son seems resigned to the fact that he may never get another chance to play overseas.
“Maybe I am just not meant to be pitching in other countries,” he said. “A couple of Japanese teams called after this season, but I can’t go because of my present deal.”
He then cited two previous examples of Korean players ―Sun Dong-yol in 1995 and Lee Jong-beom in 1997 ― leaving for Japan while still under contract because their club, Haitai (now Kia) Tigers, permitted them to do so. Son, however, said it is “highly unlikely” the Giants will let him go.
Given his MVP performance, it is hard to argue with Lotte’s holding on to Son.
This year, he led the league in wins with 18 and an ERA with 2.46. He effectively mixed four pitches ― a fastball, curve, slider and changeup ― and maintained an almost ideal speed difference between his fastballs at 148 kilometers per hour (92 miles per hour) and off-speed pitches at around 126 kilometers per hour.
Making his accomplishment even more impressive is that he came off a 2004 season during which he briefly lost his starting job and was relegated to bullpen duties.
In a career marked by comebacks, nothing Son does should surprise anymore, but one thing that does is another ambition he wants to accomplish before hanging up his spikes.
“I want to play baseball until my three-year-old daughter Ga-eun grows old enough to realize her dad is a pretty good ball player,” Son said.
“Then, I will retire and spend time with my family, knowing I have pulled off the trick of being both a good father and a baseball player.”


by Lee Tai-il

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