[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] A new Park Chan-ho starts to carve out his own legend
If you're a baseball fan, you’ve probably heard the name Park Chan-ho. The first Korea-born player to make it to the big leagues and perhaps the greatest Asia-born pitcher the MLB has ever seen, Park Chan-ho inspired an entire generation of Korean pros.
This isn't that Park Chan-ho.
This Park, a young infielder for the Kia Tigers, may share a name with the legend, but he still has a lot of career left in front of him to establish his own legacy.
Park burst onto the KBO scene in the 2019 season, but his pro career goes all the way back to 2014. Having been drafted by the Tigers, Park was quick to make his debut that year, with high expectations that he would be the KBO’s next great infielder along with Kiwoom Heroes’ Kim Ha-seong.
Despite all the headlines he was making, when it came to the rookie draft, Park was a later pick. Teams were perhaps put off because he had already made it clear that he intended to go to college first, rather than the pros.
“At the time, I was really thin and weak,” Park says. “So coaches around me suggested I go to college, get strong, and then turn pro. At the time, I thought that was right.”
Although he assumed he was heading to college, Park secretly told himself, “If I don’t get drafted by the third round, then I’ll go to college without any regrets.”
Park's name was called in the fifth round, well beyond his self-appointed college threshold. But things didn't work out as Park planned, as his father admitted that they would struggle to pay for him to go to college.
“He asked me about how I would feel about heading to the pros,” Park says. “And Kia treated me well in terms of the signing bonus, despite being called in the fifth round. Now that I think about it, I think it definitely was a good decision. Although we didn’t have a choice, it was a decision that I’ll never regret.”
Big shoes to fill
Sharing the same name as a legendary baseball player wasn't always easy for young park, especially when he was a small child.
“Even when I went to the hospital and [the nurse called my name,] everyone looked at me,” Park says. “When I was little, in the early 2000s, the ‘real Park Chan-ho’ was a really big deal at the time.”
As a result, Park even thought about changing his name. Growing up and becoming a professional baseball player has brought him even closer to the other Park Chan-ho's world, but now he doesn't think the extra recognition is a bad thing.
“Now, I look at it positively,” Park says. “I guess people look at me once more.”
Famous name aside, Park was a normal sporty child.
“At the time, I just liked any sport where I got to play with a ball,” Park says. “But when I watched it on TV, baseball players just seemed like they were going to make a lot of money. I was a child and I just started because I wanted to be rich.”
From day one, Park set his heart on playing shortstop.
“Ever since I played at the park with my friends as a kid, I always loved jumping around to make catches,” Park says. “Those kind of plays looked really cool to me. Since the start, defense meant a lot to me. I enjoyed defense more than batting.”
Raised in Daegu, Park grew up as a Samsung Lions fan, but when he headed into high school it was the Doosan Bears’ playing style that he fell in love with.
“I really liked the quick and hustling style of play,” Park says.
Park was in fourth grade when he first started playing baseball properly. Even before he joined a little league team, he would go to the park with friends to play almost every day.
“My parents were very against it,” Park says. “They wanted me to live a normal life. They kept on going against the idea of me playing baseball, but one day they told me that they would let me play in the fourth grade. I guess they didn’t know that I had been playing until then.”
Despite his parents efforts, Park's passion for the sport never died.
“[In secret,] I played with my friends every day since first grade.”
Having finally earned his parents’ approval, Park never regretted his decision to play the sport. In fact, the only time he's ever started to question his decision was in 2016, in his third year as a pro.
When Park first joined the pros, it was nothing like he expected.
“To be honest, I was shocked,” Park says. “The players in the pro teams were the best players at their schools back when they were in middle and high school. And I just completely forgot about that and joined them thinking that I was going to be good enough.”
Park's confidence was knocked almost immediately after joining the Tigers, when he saw the strength and accuracy of teammate Kim Sun-bin's arm. Realizing that he wasn't as strong at defense as he thought he was came as a shock for Park, but also a wake-up call.
But despite his own misgivings, Park was called up to the KBO almost immediately. It’s been years, but he still remembers his very first game.
“It was September 2014,” Park says. “In my very first game in the pros, I was put in the game as a substitute in defense. I was really nervous and excited at the time. As soon as I got out there, the baseball came right at me. After I took care of that, I felt relieved.”
Although that first appearance went well, Park's rookie season was nothing but a disappointment as he finished with a 0.091 batting average with 0 RBIs, two hits and three runs throughout 17 games.
Park very slowly began to improve. He appeared in 69 games in both his second and third season and his batting average crept up, but still stayed well below 0.200. By 2016, Park was regretting ever picking up a bat.
“I really wanted to give up at that time,” Park says. “Although I was playing in a lot of KBO games for my age, I think that stressed me out more. I wasn’t ready yet.”
The more Park struggled, the more he made mistakes. Eventually, he completely lost confidence.
“I kept on making mistakes in important situations,” Park says. “Every time I made a mistake, the flow of the game would flip over in the other team’s favor.”
Change of scene
Although Park knew he was struggling, he couldn't find a way to break the cycle.
“I wasn’t able to get my mental game back on pace,” Park says. “I regularly thought about doing something else. At the time, our manager told me to go to the military. He told me to go to the regular military, not the military baseball team.”
Park thought joining the regular military would be the end of his baseball career as it took him outside the sport for nearly two years.
“While I thought my career was heading to its end, I also thought that spending time with people who lived a different life could be a good experience,” Park says.
He ended up joining the military as a regular soldier. Park says he felt like he had “run away.”
During his first year, Park says that he was able to completely forget about baseball. When he joined up he was older than most of the other recruits, as most men fulfill their military service after their freshman year of college.
“The majority of them had no goals and were just living their lives,” Park says. “Watching them, I realized how happy I was to have had and lived for a specific goal since I was little.”
Having realized how important that sense of purpose was for him, it didn’t take Park long to set his mind on returning to the KBO. The timing was perfect as well, as the Tigers had just won their first Korean Series in eight years.
“I think all the puzzle pieces in my head just fell into place,” Park says.
Back for good
Once Park decided to make his return, the first thing he focused on was getting bigger.
“I started weight lifting,” Park says. “I got protein powder with the highest calorie count. I think I just kept on going to the commissary to gain weight.”
Park was eventually discharged from the military and headed back to Kia. Despite his newfound resolve, Park was still very scared to return to professional baseball.
“Going back there gave me a lot of pressure,” Park says. “Going to the military wasn’t preparing for war, for me. Returning to Kia was my war.”
Despite his fears, it was immediately clear that something had changed for Park. He felt like he had gained power and got quicker.
“I could feel that I got better,” Park says. “But I had lost the feeling of being in an actual game. I ended up joining spring training in Okinawa [Japan] and I started making mistakes again. Since I didn’t have a feel for the ball any more, when it came to me I just froze up.”
After spring training, Park was sent to the Futures League squad. At first it discouraged him, but as he played through the games, he started to get better.
“I got better,” Park says. “In defense, I guess I was back to where I was, but in terms of batting, it was crazy. During the exhibition game period in the Futures League, I was hitting home runs and making hits that were just impossible for me before. At that time, [baseball] was fun.”
After only 11 games in the lower league, Park was called up to the KBO. Rather than being happy about his success, he says that he had a bigger feeling of insecurity.
“I made a hit in the very first game,” Park says. “I got really nervous, but as I made a catch, it got better. But still, at the back of my mind I felt insecure.”
Park's confidence got a big boost when he checked the Tigers' roster.
“I thought about it and realized that in our team’s entry, I was the only shortstop at the time,” Park says.
That meant that there was no risk of Park being replaced. For the next 10 days, Park would be playing as shortstop whether he messed up or not. Feeling that the pressure was off, Park gained confidence and started piling up the hits.
“I was swinging my bat with confidence, and it just got crazy,” Park says.
Park finished the 2019 season with his career-high 0.260 batting average with 131 hits and 60 runs throughout 133 games.
If he were to give himself a score based on his performance last year, he says that it would be different from the first and the second half of the season. Although he hit that career high, as the season headed into its second half, Park started to lose some of that pop from his bat.
“In the first half, I think I can give myself a score of more than 90 [out of 100],” Park says. “In the second half, I would say about 30? I started to make more errors and learned that physical condition matters a lot.”
Although Park struggled to maintain his stamina throughout his first full season in the KBO, his performance did earn him one special reward: Tigers' legend Lee Bum-ho's jersey number, No. 25.
"I was overwhelmed [to receive his jersey number]," Park says. "He was such a big player, and I was just a baby. But I thought that it, too, could be an opportunity, so I was able to receive [his number]."
Silence at bat
Following his successful 2019, the 2020 season was another disappointing one for Park.
Although he got to play in more games, at 141, and managed to make over 100 hits to finish the season with a 0.223 batting average, he says that he would give himself a score of 30 for his performance this season.
His statistics were disappointing, and having to play through the majority of the season in empty stadiums came as another blow for Park.
“It felt very empty,” Park says. “Quite a lot of the time, I couldn’t really focus. Since I can hear every kind of noise I wasn’t used to hearing, like what the opposing team is saying, I couldn’t concentrate.”
The loud cheers and chants used to excite Park at bat, and hearing nothing but silence wasn’t a fun experience for him. Even when gates finally opened to 10, 25, and eventually 50 percent capacity, it still wasn’t fun as he the crowd wasn't allowed to cheer.
“It was a little better than [an empty stadium,] as they at least turned on the amps,” Park says. “But hearing no shouting was still [difficult].”
Handling the shift to empty stadiums is all about the mental game, something that Park admits he's never been very good at. For a shortstop this could prove to be a big shortcoming as mistakes in that position can make or break a game.
As Park continues to work on this mental game he has one mantra: Don’t get stressed.
“There are times when I criticize myself too much,” Park says. “So I just tell myself not to get stressed.”
Moving forward, Park no longer sets statistical goals for the season. He says that that is one thing that he learned this year.
“Even if I set a specific number as my goal, it doesn’t mean that I can achieve that,” Park says. “If I set it and think about that, I get shaken up when I get close to that number. So my goal is to play baseball without getting stressed, because I’m playing baseball to make the people around me be happy.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]
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