Park hoping to regain All-Star form
Korean righty glad to be in NY and pitching for an NL team
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Baseball has made Chan Ho Park wealthy and an All-Star. Along with the peaks, the Korean right-hander has also seen plenty of the game's valleys.
As a Met, he figures to have three things going for him in his bid for a turnaround season. Park is back in the National League, he's healthy and he's happy to be playing again in a city where many of his native countrymen can see him pitch.
When Park made the transition from the Dodgers in the National League to the Rangers in the American League in 2002, he was considered among the game's premier pitchers. After a back injury that lingered for three painful years, he was largely viewed with disdain by Texas fans.
The Park fan club had pretty much dwindled to some dogged loyalists from his native Korea.
"But I never give up, that's the most important thing," Park said, raising his voice to make a point. "I never gave up. Everybody said I was done. I didn't let that take me out of the game. I knew if I could get healthy, I still knew how to get hitters out."
That resilience came in handy as Park endured injury-plagued seasons in his first three years with the Rangers: 9-8 with a 5.75 ERA in 2002, 1-3, 7.58 in '03 and 4-7, 5.46 in '04. He was traded midway through the fourth in '05 -- back to the NL West, this time with the Padres.
Though the return to the NL hasn't been a magic elixir to allow him to approach the success that he enjoyed with the Dodgers, Park is clearly partial to the league where he received his start.
Park has a cumulative 3.97 ERA in the NL, while in the AL, it was 5.79, along with a forgettable 22-23 record.
"I feel more confident over here," he said. "This is a very good place for me, on a team with so much good players, so much promise. I want to do my part."
It is uncertain at this point where Park fits, or if he fits at all. He will begin finding out on Friday, when he starts in a Grapefruit League game against the Cardinals.
Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez are considered Nos. 1-2 in the Mets' rotation, and that's if El Duque can stay healthy, which is not a guarantee.
Park, 33, could begin the season as the third starter largely because of his experience, or he might even wind up being stashed at Triple-A New Orleans as insurance, if he would approve such an assignment.
John Maine and Oliver Perez, who both pitched well in last season's playoffs, are candidates to be starters Nos. 3 and 4. Then there's promising youngsters Philip Humber and Mike Pelfrey. If either or both pitch well this spring, room could be made for them in the rotation, though the Mets generally are taking more of a long-term approach with the young right-handers.
Also in contention for spots are veteran Aaron Sele, a former Dodger, and former Brave Jorge Sosa.
Of course, room will likely need to be made eventually for staff ace Pedro Martinez, if he makes an anticipated return in late summer.
Manager Willie Randolph spent some time watching Park early in camp, and that made him hopeful that the Mets have found Park at the right time in his career. Randolph particularly liked what he called a "slurve," a slider-curve combo pitch with a downward slant but not enough to be called a drop.
"He's had some experience and he's done some good things," the manager said. "We'll see. I like the fact that we have a veteran presence here, a veteran arm. And he looks good; real good, I'd say."
Catcher Paul Lo Duca, who caught Park with the Dodgers, is of a similar opinion.
"He could be a huge bonus if he can come back healthy," Lo Duca said. "He's the kind of guy who wants the ball. He can go deep in games."
Pitching coach Rick Peterson is giving Park the respect he generally accords veteran pitchers of some achievement.
"Veterans like him who've pitched at a high level become your teachers," Peterson said. "You find out what he believes his strengths are and see if you can put him in an environment where he can feel comfortable. Then you develop a specific plan, because if you have a vague plan, you're likely to get vague results."
Park reported to camp with no apparent aftereffects from an emergency stomach operation he endured last August. He'd been bleeding internally from a pocket of tissue hanging off his small intestine called Meckel's diverticulum.
"I was scared," he said. "I would get dizzy and have headaches and get real tired. Sometimes I couldn't even stand up because I was so dizzy."
Adding to the drama, because he needed seven pints of blood, donors had to be secured. One of those who gave was Padres pitcher Jake Peavy's wife.
Park was not expected to return last season, but he did, pitching two scoreless innings of relief in the NL Division Series against the Cardinals.
Three teams contacted him in the offseason -- the Padres, Mets and Giants. Park chose the Mets in part because of the estimated 700,000 Koreans who live in New York City, second-largest Korean community in the country behind Los Angeles.
"When I signed with the Mets, I got a lot of letters from Korean fans," he said. "They make me feel very welcome here, just like my new teammates have."
Park already has aligned himself with an organization that deals with helping Korean children get adopted.
"There are thousands of them," Park said. "I want to teach them about their country. I want to make them proud to be Korean. I want to help see them raised the right way. If I can do anything to make them happy, I want to do my best. I consider this something very good for me to be involved in."
Knowing that so many Koreans will be rooting for him makes Park feel that New York will be a place where he has the emotional support and a chance to regain the form that first propelled him to fame and riches.
Charlie Nobles is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.