Saturday, October 2, 2010

Chan Ho Park

Chan Ho Park, the Pirate's new set-up guy, was the first South Korean-born player in major league history.

He won his team MVP honors three consecutive seasons at Kongju High School, along with being named the MVP at four national prep tournaments.

Park was a member of the 1992 and 1993 South Korea national baseball team. He posted a 2.76 ERA in helping the ROK earn the silver medal at the Asian Baseball Championship in 1993, and also competed in Summer Universiade in July 1993, where his team also won silver.

The Dodgers signed Park in 1994 as an international free agent during his sophomore year at Seoul's Hanyang University.

Park made his MLB debut for the Dodgers on April 8th, 1994, against the Atlanta Braves as a reliever, working one inning. He spent most of the season with the Class AA San Antonio Missions.

With the AAA Albuquerque Dukes in 1995, Park was fourth in the Pacific Coast League in strikeouts with 101 (his 8.26 K/9 innings was the best average of all Class AAA pitchers that season). He was ranked by Baseball America as the #2 Dodger prospect, along with recognition as having the best fastball in the PCL.

He got his first MLB start on October 1st against the San Diego Padres after receiving a September call-up.

In 1996, his first full season with the Dodgers, he went 5–5 with a 3.64 ERA in 48 games (10 starts), notching his first win against the Chicago Cubs. Park blew up in 1997. He tied for the team lead in victories with a 14–8 slate and posted a 3.38 ERA.

In 1998, he was 15–9 with a 3.71 ERA in 34 starts and struck out 191 batters in 220-2/3 innings. Then he led the South Korean team to the gold medal in the Asian Games.

In 1999, he struggled, going 13–11 but with a 5.23 ERA, and suffered the ignominy of giving up two grand slams in the same inning to the same player, Fernando Tatis of the St. Louis Cardinals, the only time that's happened in the majors.

That wasn't his only problem. Following the 1999 season, Park reported to boot camp for South Korea's mandatory two-year military service, but received a waiver after a month of marching and saluting, allowing him to stay on track for baseball.

And he rallied in 2000. Park was second in the NL in strikeouts in 2000 (217) and second in OBA (.214); he was also second in walks (124). He finished the season 18–10 with a 3.27 ERA, the best year of his career.

Park was the Dodgers opening day starter for the 2001 season and tossed the Dodgers first season opening shutout since 1981. He was 15–11 with a 3.50 ERA during the campaign and appeared in the All-Star Game. Park lost the game thanks to a home run by Cal Ripken, Jr. He also gave up Barry Bonds' 71st and 72nd homers on October 5th; he served some memorable gopher balls that season.

He became a free agent after the year and took full advantage. Park was signed by the Texas Rangers to a five year, $65M contract, but injuries and a hitter's park took their toll. Park went 9–8 in 25 starts, with a 5.75 ERA. He only started seven times in 2004 due to injuries, going 1–3 with a 7.58 ERA.

On July 29th, 2005, he was traded by the Rangers to San Diego for for Phil Nevin. The Padres FO were counting on pitcher-friendly Petco Park and a return to the NL to rejuvenate his career. It didn't; he was 4-3 with a 5.91 ERA with the Padres that season.

Between seasons, Park played for South Korea in the World Baseball Classic. They used him mainly as a closer (he got one start), and he went 10 shutout frames with three saves as South Korea finished third while Park earned a spot on the All-WBC team.

His performance convinced San Diego Padres' manager Bruce Bochy that Park could be an effective reliever as well as a starter, though it took a couple of years for that thought to sink in. He started the 2006 season in the bullpen but soon returned to the rotation, going 7-7 with a 4.81 ERA.

On July 31st, he suffered from severe intestinal bleeding and was placed on the DL. Several teammates offered to donate their blood for him, but Park refused their offer, unwilling to turn the team into zombies.

He had another episode of intestinal bleeding on August 21st, and was found to have a congenital defect, Meckel's diverticulum, which was cured by surgery. In a quirk, six days after he went under the knife, his wife delivered their baby daughter at the same hospital.

The San Diego Padres advanced to the post-season and Park made his first career playoff appearance in Game 1 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals as a reliever.

On February 8th, 2007, Park inked a one-year, $3M contract with the New York Mets to compete for a starting rotation spot. He didn't win one, and was sent to AAA ball. He got bombed in a call-up, and was DFA'ed on June 4th.

Park quickly signed a minor league deal with the Houston Astros, but never made the 40-man roster. In 2008, Park returned to the LA Dodgers as a non-roster invitee after playing for the Korean National team in the Asian games, looking for a fifth starter gig.

He lost out to Esteban Loaiza for the last starting job, and was sent to the minors out of camp, but not for long. The Dodgers purchased Park's minor league contract on April 2nd and brought him back up to the show.

On May 17th, 2008, Park made his first start of the year, and it turned out to be historic. For the first time in MLB annals, three pitchers born in three different Asian countries pitched for the same team in the same game: Park, Hong-Chih Kuo (Taiwan), and Takashi Saito (Japan).

On June 21st, 2008, Park started against the Cleveland Indians at Dodger Stadium and again made history, joining Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Javier Vazquez, and Jamie Moyer as the only pitchers to start a game against all 30 major league teams to date.

After Saito suffered an elbow injury, Park was moved back to the bullpen by Joe Torre as a set-up guy. He finished the season at 4-4 with a 3.50 ERA and earned a pair of saves.

Park signed a one-year, $2.5M contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009, and won a starting role. But after seven starts and a 7.29 ERA, Park was moved to the bullpen and replaced by J. A. Happ. His problem was simple; to last longer into games, Park was pacing himself, and in the process lost a few feet from his heater and some pitch movement.

But working as a reliever and back to throwing full tilt, he compiled a 2.52 ERA. After missing time with a hamstring injury, Park made his return to the Phillies in the playoffs and pitched in his first World Series. He became a free agent after the season.

On February 28th, 2010, Park signed a one-year contract worth $1.2M with $300K in incentives with the New York Yankees. He was DFA'ed on July 31st, with a 2-1 record and 5.61 ERA, to clear roster space for Kerry Wood after attempts to trade him were unsuccessful.

The Bucs claimed him. They just can't resist a pitcher from the Yankee organization and were short of warm bodies anyway, thanks to the great bullpen sell-off.

He got off to a rocky start, giving up runs in five of his first six appearances. But JR stuck with him, saying he was just rusty and needed more work, and he was right. Park is 2-2 with the Pirates with a 3.49 ERA in 26 outings; it's below two runs per game if you eliminate those first half-dozen stints.

He wrote a little more history last night when he earned the W against Florida; Park now owns the most wins for an Asian born pitcher with 124, breaking his short-lived tie with Hideo Nomo.

In his prime, Park was a power pitcher (95-96 MPH fastball), and a good one; he had five consecutive seasons of 10+ wins with the Dodgers. And that rep comes with all the usual baggage; a lot of K's, a lot of walks, and a lot of fly-ball outs. It also requires quite a bit of stamina, and at 37, he can bring it only for a limited time now, though his heater still registers in the low nineties.

Park has been pretty much a bullpen guy since 2008, and that's his niche now. But he's effective in a middle role; his mix of stuff from his starting days gives him a five-pitch arsenal to throw at hitters, including a newly-added cutter taught to him by the master, Mariano Riviera.

He's got an interesting personal package, too. Park's been married to socialite Ri-hye Park since 2005, and has two girls, Elynne and Selynne. His wife is renowned as a cook, writer, and rich guy's only daughter.

Park sponsors the LA-based Chan Ho Park Dream Foundation, which funds youth initiatives. In fact, Ri-hye wrote a book, "Rie's Kitchen," for the Foundation; it receives all the royalties. He's also reputed to be a good head and popular guy in the locker room, known to his bullpen mates as "Chop."

And like many Asian ballplayers, Park, who is not a U.S. citizen, has to leave the States and return to Korea every off-season to keep his work visa in order for the following year.

The Pirates have said that they'd like to keep Park in Pittsburgh next season, probably to fill the old DJ Carrasco all-purpose role or as a seventh inning bridge. Although he says he's comfortable here, a contract could be a hard sell.

He's soon to be a free agent, and has said before that he prefers to play for teams that have a shot at the playoffs. With his rebuilt cred here, he could likely find a willing NL taker.

Then again, maybe the Bucs could get Hines Ward to put in a good word for them...


Mengjuei Hsieh said...

Kuo is a Taiwanese, not a Chinese national.

Ron Ieraci said...

Mengjuei - my bad; the source I used just said he was Chinese; I should have known that meant Taiwanese. I fixed it up on the post.

Mengjuei Hsieh said...

Thanks for taking care of this. It's very normal to mix it up since Taiwan can only be referred as "Chinese Taipei" in many sports due to China's pressure.

Ron Ieraci said...

Ah, when sports and politics collide...anyway, thanks for pointing out my mistake, Mengjuei, I'm glad I got it right now.