On St. Patrick's day in Vero Beach, Fla., a 20-year-old pitcher from South Korea wearing a green Los Angeles Dodger cap (he had no idea what that was all about) rocked back from the pitching rubber, brought both hands high above his head and stopped, motionless as an oil painting. One, two, three, four, five seconds passed—an eternity charged with the tension of utter stillness. Suddenly he jerked his hands down, kicked his left leg above his head, drew back his right arm, thrust himself forward, brought his arm around as furiously as if he were cracking a whip and let loose another pitch toward...what, exactly? Recognition as a trans-cultural phenomenon? Or homogenization into the great American pastime?
That might as well have been a flying saucer on the mound, the way the baseball establishment has reacted to Chan Ho Park and the unique method by which he sometimes delivers a baseball. No one knew what to do about it. No one wanted to touch it. It was just so—well, so foreign.
A two-man Asian invasion has hit baseball. While Park is trying to become the first Korean to play in the majors, Seattle Mariner prospect Makoto (Mac) Suzuki, 18, is attempting to become the first Japanese-born player to reach the big leagues without first playing professionally in Japan. Both Park and Suzuki were expected to start this season in the minor leagues, but Park has been so impressive this spring that the Dodgers are talking about placing him on their Opening Day roster. At week's end Park, the more advanced pitcher, who can start or relieve, had pitched in three exhibition games and allowed two earned runs in 10 innings (1.80 ERA). Suzuki, a setup man, lasted much longer in major league camp than anticipated, making five appearances and allowing one earned run in eight innings (1.13 ERA). On Monday he was assigned to Double A Jacksonville.
Both pitchers are remarkably poised given their youth, not to mention the usual linguistic and cultural pitfalls of living in a foreign country and the frenzied rooting interest from their homelands. Suzuki, for instance, is followed every day by a contingent of Japanese journalists that typically numbers about 25.
Park's mission is complicated by the controversy over his stop-and-go delivery, a style frequently taught in South Korea to distract hitters. As of Sunday the legality of his motion was still being questioned. Park uses the hesitation move only occasionally—four times during a three-inning stint last week—and varies the delay from one to five seconds.
When Park did his St. Paddy's pause with Jeromy Burnitz at bat for the New York Mets, the Met bench erupted with shouts of "Step out! Step out!" Even manager Dallas Green yelled to Burnitz to exit the batter's box. Burnitz remained, however, and took the pitch for a ball.
After the game, Green informed umpire crew chief Bruce Froemming that his hitters will walk out of the box if Park tries his hesitation move in the regular season. Montreal Expo manager Felipe Alou had told Froemming likewise four days earlier when Park pitched against his club. Froemming, angered that the umpires have been given no directive by baseball's rules committee, said, "The Dodgers think [the pause is] legal. I'm of the other opinion, as are the clubs. If the batter steps out, I'm going to give him time even if he doesn't ask for it. [The rules committee] put us in the middle of the lake on this. While they can't make up their minds, the batters are going to keep stepping out, and we'll go have a pizza."
Major League Baseball's executive director of baseball operations, Bill Murray, who is chairman of the rules committee, wasn't about to stick his head out of his bunker. He said through a spokesman that Park's pause was not a matter for his committee because Rule 8.01(a) clearly states a pitcher must deliver the ball "without interruption or alteration"—implying that it was up to the umps to interpret it. And yet former pitcher Luis Tiant, who played 19 years, was known to hesitate during his leg kick, without penalty.
Ed Vargo, the National League director of umpire supervision, was no more definitive. "We're going to work with [Park] on this," Vargo said. "We'll come up with something. That's all I can say."
It seems no one wants the job of pulling the beard off Santa Claus. Park has fast established himself as not only a terrific talent but also a charismatic personality who endears himself to fans with his joyful and decidedly un-American manner of playing baseball. He is already a fan favorite, and not just among the nearly half-million Koreans in the Los Angeles area. As Park stepped in to bat against the Mets, he doffed his helmet and bowed to plate umpire Terry Tata, who moments earlier had been arguing with L.A.'s Darryl Strawberry. The Florida crowd loved it.
"I was in a bad mood, and here comes this kid, tipping his helmet and bowing," Tata said. "I had to smile. I wish all players would get in that habit."
Park then slapped a hard single into rightfield, sending the fans into further celebration. Those sitting nearest to Park as he stood on first base were particularly worked up, so he bowed slightly and gave them a wave of his hand in thanks.
Who wants to shut the window even slightly on this fresh air blowing baseball's way? What grinch would have told Fernando Valenzuela not to roll his eyes heavenward in the middle of his delivery or Mark Fidrych to quit talking to baseballs? Park can be the same sort of pitching marvel. The Korea Daily Central calls him The Yellow Express. Given that he comes from a farming village only 62 miles outside of South Korea's capital, you can also call him the Seoul Train.
"This is what I hope," Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser says. "I hope he continues to pitch this way, I hope he continues to bow, and I hope he continues to do all the things unique to his culture. That's why this is so great. He's unique, naive and unspoiled. Let's enjoy it. He'll be mixed in with the tossed salad soon enough."
Meanwhile in Arizona the Mariners' Suzuki was adding his own flavor to spring training. When he came to the U.S. two years ago, Suzuki was already something of a rebel. Without having distinguished himself as a high school pitcher, he dropped out at 16 and contacted Don Nomura, a former player in Japan who was part owner of an independent Class A team in Salinas, Calif. "I just wanted to play the highest level of baseball in the world," Suzuki said last week through an interpreter. Nomura hired him to be a clubhouse boy, and Suzuki did a fine job—except on the day he poured what he thought was detergent into the washing machine. It turned out to be Drano. The team's uniforms were ruined.
Suzuki spent the rest of his time nagging Nomura to let him pitch in a game. The owner finally relented on the last day of the season, and Suzuki threw one hitless inning. Nomura then sold his interest in the Salinas team and purchased the Class A independent team in San Bernardino—but he took Suzuki with him.
Last season the righthander struck out 87 batters in 80⅖ innings, and by the end of the year 16 major league clubs wanted to sign him. He chose the Mariners, who gave him a $750,000 signing bonus, and said Seattle reminded him of his hometown, Kobe. Moreover, Suzuki's signing was facilitated by Minoru Arakawa, a member of the Mariners' board of directors and an executive with Nintendo, the Japanese entertainment company that owns a majority share of the team. The Mariners have such strong ties to Japan that they are planning a one-week tour of the country next spring that would include their first three games of the regular season.
Suzuki, who is 6'3" and weighs 195 pounds, has a presence on the mound that Seattle pitching coach Sammy Ellis likens to Jim Palmer's. With a deliberate, fluid motion he throws above-average fastballs and changeups and a curveball that needs refining. (While his fastball has hit a top speed of 96 mph, it is more often clocked at around 90.) He already has three endorsement contracts—with U.S. companies that make shoes, gloves and sunglasses—and has replaced Arnold Schwarzenegger as the TV spokesman for a Japanese high-energy drink.
Suzuki sees an English tutor three days a week. His command of the language already is much better than it was last year, when he had trouble one day ordering at McDonald's. The counterperson asked, "Big Mac?" Suzuki, thinking the person meant his nickname, smiled and said, "Yes." The employee asked again, and Suzuki said yes again. This happened five more times, until Suzuki found himself paying for an order of seven Big Macs. He downed five of them.
More recently Mariner manager Lou Piniella learned that during an exhibition game Suzuki was in the clubhouse eating sushi while he should have been in the dugout studying hitters. "Watch game first, then sushi," Piniella said. This time Suzuki understood perfectly.
Park, too, is receiving language instruction; he has been assigned an interpreter, and his Dodger teammates tutor him on words and phrases he won't hear on any of his English audiotapes. The most printable of the lot is "Hey, dude," though in greeting teammate Eric Karros one morning, Park chimed, "Hey, dudu."
Park had wanted to play for the Dodgers ever since he visited the L.A. area for an amateur tournament in 1991. He saw a game at Dodger Stadium, bought a Dodger jacket and told a friend, "I'm going to be a Dodger." As a pitcher for Hanyang University last year, he was scouted by the Dodgers at the Asian Games and the World University Games. They signed him in January for a $1.2 million bonus.
"He's got the talent to pitch in the big leagues right now," Los Angeles catcher Mike Piazza says. "The only thing holding him back is a lack of knowledge. I don't care how good your stuff is, there are certain times that you can't throw certain pitches to certain hitters."
Park knows almost nothing about big league hitters. When someone asked him last week about the Mets' Kevin McReynolds, whom Park had struck out with a good curveball, he looked perplexed. "Which one was he?" he said. On the day after that game against the Mets, Park's interpreter, Don Yi, explained to him the green hats and St. Patrick's Day. Park smiled, turned to a reporter and promptly dropped his jeans and boxer shorts low enough to reveal a clover-shaped birthmark on his hip. "Maybe that's why I pitched well," he said with a laugh.
When asked if he was ready for the major leagues, Park replied firmly, "Sure." Said Yi, "To him that means absolutely yes. 'Sure' is the strongest possible yes." Park promises to be undeterred from his goal even if he is forced to abandon the delay in his delivery.
"I do it whenever it comes to me," he says of the occasional windup pause. "I can't say no other pitcher in Korea does it, but I am noted for doing it. In Korea what I did wasn't a problem. If I have to change, I don't see any problem with that. I'm very flexible."
Park and Suzuki already are ambassadors for the game in the truest sense of the word. No rule book is needed to determine that. Is baseball fortunate to have them? The answer requires no hesitation.