[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] No shoes are too big for Doosan catcher Park Sei-hyok
When Park Sei-hyok burst onto the scene to fill the huge vacancy left by veteran Yang Eui-ji in 2019, you would have been forgiven for thinking he just got lucky. A year later, the Doosan Bears catcher has proven that luck has nothing to do with it.
When the Bears finished runner-up in the Korean Series by losing to the SK Wyverns in 2018, it wasn’t only the title that they lost. As soon as the season ended, the Bears had a huge gap to fill in their lineup as star catcher Yang went to the NC Dinos.
While this raised a lot of concerns for the club and its fans, for Park it was an opportunity to earn a starting spot. Despite having been overshadowed by Yang for years, he quickly proved he was good enough and led the Bears to win both the 2019 regular season and the Korean Series.
And he did it his own way. As well as being a solid catcher and a strong hitter, Park has one secret weapon that isn't traditionally part of the catcher's arsenal — he's quick.
“I didn’t know I was fast,” Park says, “until suddenly, I was considered fast. I think my style is to hit a single and then turn that into a double or maybe even a triple, rather than just hitting home runs, and at times I steal bases. It’s different from other catchers, but I think this is my style.”
While Park might have arrived on the scene with explosive form in 2019, he's settled down this year and had a few ups and downs, but his leadership behind the plate was still enough to see the Bears make an upset at the very end of the season.
After a difficult year, the Bears were practically guaranteed a fifth-place finish until the final game, when the stars aligned and they suddenly jumped to third. They entered the postseason with a bang, winning two rounds to earn a spot in the Korean Series, where they finally lost to the Dinos. Although they've got no silverware to show for the season, 2020 was still another good year for Doosan.
Having played full-time for the past two seasons as the Bears’ catcher, Park says he still has a long way to go to rival Yang, but he's confident he will get there one day.
Like father, like son
Park is one of that rare breed of second-generation athletes, following in the footsteps of his father Park Cheol-u, who was named Korean Series MVP for the Haiti Tigers just a few months before the younger Park was born.
Unsurprisingly, baseball has always been a big part of Park's life.
“When you’re young, what you see the most becomes your dream,” Park says. “So I grew up going to the ballpark a lot, because that was my father's workplace.”
Having a father who was already a big name player, the baseball stadium became like a second home for young Park. As a result, he was never interested in any other sport.
Park’s father was a dominant player back in the 1980s, playing as a first baseman and designated hitter. He was part of the Tigers squad that won five Korean Series, before moving to the Ssangbangwool Raiders.
Growing up watching his father, becoming a professional baseball player seemed natural to Park.
“It’s hard to express in words,” Park says. “I think this is something only the second-generation baseball players can relate to. It’s cool because it’s like, ‘Oh my father’s there.’ I got to watch the players and greet them. At that moment, I got this random thought of wanting to become a baseball player.”
Park's father retired in 1998, when young Park was 8 years old, and two years later accepted a coaching position with the SK Wyverns, a new franchise in Incheon built on the now-defunct Raiders. As a result, Park's family moved to Seoul.
“As my father moved up to Incheon, we moved up to Seoul, after living in Gwangju and Jeonju,” Park says. “That’s how I started playing baseball. At first, I think my father thought I wasn’t going to play for long.”
When Park moved to Seoul, he didn’t pick up baseball right away. Instead it was a year later until he finally started to play.
When Park decided to pursue a career in the sport, he says that he remembers his father suggesting trying other sports, as he was well aware of how tough it is to get to the pros.
“I think I said I was just going to play baseball,” Park says. “They were just like, ‘Ok, give it a try.’”
“So I think this was my start. Since the moment I was born, my father was already a famous player, a great cleanup hitter for Haitai. So I just dreamed of becoming [like him].”
Choosing a catcher's life
Park decided fairly early on that he wanted to be a catcher, a position not many baseball players choose to play.
“My father told me that by the time I go to the pros, there won’t be many catchers,” Park says.
Along with his father's advice, Park also remembers looking up to an older teammate that played as a catcher.
“He looked really cool,” Park says. “When you’re young, you do something that looks cool, and that was being a catcher to me.”
When he started training to be a catcher, it was a lot harder than he thought. A lot of his childhood was spent in grueling training, and Park remembers having almost permanent bruises on his knees, but that didn't mean he didn't enjoy the experience.
“I think I just did it and had fun,” Park says. “And it helped that I believed that doing all that training would make me a good player.”
Despite the difficult path, Park never regretted his decision to become a catcher. Having played through middle school and high school, Park was originally drafted by the LG Twins, but instead of joining the pros right away, he headed to college, attending Korea University.
“I thought I wasn’t ready,” Park says. “And my father suggested that going to college wasn’t a bad idea because he also went to college. At the time, quite a lot of players went to college. Since going to college meant a four-year delay, I attended college thinking that I could use the time to make improvements.”
But after turning down the opportunity to go pro with the Twins, Park found it difficult to watch other players his age making a name for themselves in the KBO.
“I think it’s obvious for me to feel jealous,” Park says. “If you’re a human and you see your close friend playing in the pros, you can feel jealous. But if I worked hard and got there later, then I could get to the same position as them. So to be honest, I don’t think I have much regret, because I also learned a lot by going to college. When I was there, I regularly thought about getting better.”
The Twins may have been the first club to show interest in Park, but when he graduated and entered the draft once again, it was their Jamsil rival the Bears that he joined.
“At the time, I was back at zero,” Park says. “So I was just thankful to the Bears for drafting me. I think I’ve come this far because the Bears drafted me.”
Park headed to college because he thought he wasn’t good enough, and four years later, when he joined the Bears, he didn’t expect to make it to the KBO any time soon because the Bears already had a lot of big name veterans and great players in the top tier.
“I don’t think I thought about heading to the KBO right away,” Park says. “Since I joined the pros, I just told myself to learn the basics again. I really tried to learn from the senior players by watching them play.”
Although Park was expecting to spend a few years learning the ropes, he did make six appearances in his rookie season. A year later, in his second season, he appeared in 18 games.
After his second year with the Bears, Park fulfilled his mandatory military service by joining the Sangju Sangmu baseball team.
Once Park returned from the military, there was a significant increase in the number of games he played in, as he appeared in 87 games that year. While the Bears had Yang as their starting catcher, Park slowly made his way up to the No. 2 spot.
Out of the shadows
Spending years as a backup player could have been difficult and a bit disappointing, but Park says there was never a moment when he regretted his decision.
“I never regretted playing baseball and honestly have no disappointment,” Park says. “Instead, I think that if I didn’t play baseball, I probably wouldn’t have been able to receive this much spotlight and represent Korea.”
Instead, Park says that the time he spent in the military and all the time in the Futures League allowed him to have a stronger mindset when he plays for the Bears. There may be times when things don’t go his way, but Park still enjoys every opportunity he is given.
“I probably wasn’t as happy back then as I am right now,” Park says. “So I’m just really happy right now. Back when I had just started, I wrote lists of things I wanted to achieve. Now I'm ticking those things off; the feeling of achievement is just amazing.”
Park may have been the Bears' No. 2 catcher for years, but Yang was such a huge name that Park was still virtually unknown before the 2019 season. Yet when it seemed like the end of an era for Doosan, Park suddenly arose as the next star catcher for the club and played a crucial role in the pennant and championship wins.
Playing in 137 games, Park finished the regular season with a 0.279 batting average with 19 doubles, 123 hits and 58 runs.
The 2019 Korean Series was even more meaningful for Park as he hit the winner. Throughout the four Korean Series games, Park stood out as he finished with a 0.417 batting average with five hits and three runs.
That performance gave him another opportunity: A spot on the Korean national baseball team.
A day after the Korean Series victory, the roster for the Korean national baseball team for the 2019 Premier 12 was announced, and Park’s name was on the list. Despite joining the national team after such a dramatic year, he said that rather than pressure, he felt more excited to be a part of Team Korea.
“It’s like an All-Star,” Park says. “It felt really new because I got to wear the same uniform as the players that represented Korea. Being a part of the team was such an honor. I got to see how other players were playing and learn from it. Just wearing that ‘Korea’ mark across my chest got me emotional.”
The 2019 season made Park a household name. In a year, he became a full-time starter, joined the national team and hit the winning run in the Korean Series.
“It was my first year as a starter,” Park says. “I got to see a great result because they gave me the opportunity. There were times where I played well and times when I was inconsistent. I also got to hit the winner for the first time since I joined the pros. Since all these things were happening in one season, it was like a dream. Honestly, I think 2019 was and will always be an unforgettable year for me.”
As it was his first season playing full-time, Park did struggle physically, but he also took it positively as he thought it was time for his body to adjust.
“Putting aside the pain and injuries, I just thought that I had to fight through all these to become a starter,” Park says.
A family affair
Along with his dramatic season, Park’s outstanding performance also put the spotlight back on his father, as the elder Park is now a coach for the Bears. Up until the first half of the 2019 season, Park Cheol-u served as the Bears’ batting coach, before being named the manager of the Futures’ League team.
The Parks are used to working together now, but that hasn't always been the case. Park senior joined the Bears in 2015, when Park Sei-hyok was doing his military service. A year later when the younger Park rejoined the club, it took some time for him to adjust.
“During the first year, in 2016, after I came back from the military, it was a little uncomfortable,” Park says. “But I think it was just me thinking that. So I just started to ask him the same questions as other players do. But one thing was that on days when I didn’t play well, I care more about his opinion. I think the same applies to him too.”
What goes up
Following his incredible 2019 season, Park faced a serious challenge in repeating that this year. And although the Bears didn't have a terrible season, Park is already learning that any pro experiences highs and lows.
Park appeared in 124 games and finished with a 0.269 batting average with 97 hits and 47 runs this year.
“In the beginning of the season, our pitchers weren’t like last year,” Park says. “I was criticized a lot for my mix of pitches, and fans were disappointed. But I think a slump is necessary to get better. It’s good if everything goes well, but when I face a slump, I learn to get through it.”
As Park struggled, he was briefly sent back to the Futures League.
“I think I had high expectations for myself and felt overwhelmed,” Park says. “Since we won both the regular season and the Korean Series, I told myself that I have to be better. And I wasn’t able to enjoy baseball.”
Interestingly, it was the Futures League players that allowed Park to clear his head. Watching the young players, he noticed them having fun, even though they didn’t necessarily play well. Watching them allowed Park to reset his mind and focus on having fun.
“I always write two words behind the home plate before every game,” Park says. “Confidence and trust. I always tell myself to trust myself and play with confidence. I’ve been writing that since last year.”
There were ups and downs throughout the 2020 season, but if he were to evaluate himself for his performance, Park says he would give himself a 70 to 80 out of 100. It may not have been pretty at some points, but at least the team pushed through until the end and got the job done.
Moving forward, Park’s goals are all about the team.
“Our team finished runner-up,” Park says. “We don’t know which players are going to stay or what’s going to happen. But I know that our team is not going to sink that easily. Since I’ll be in my third season as starting catcher, I want to help Doosan compete for the title next year as well.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]