Phillies pitcher Chan Ho Park has learned to embrace his many fans

Phillies pitcher Chan Ho Park poses with several members of local fan club, whom he met at Citizens Bank Park during All-Star break.
Phillies pitcher Chan Ho Park poses with several members of local fan club, whom he met at Citizens Bank Park during All-Star break.
Posted: August 18, 2009

ONE DAY DURING the All-Star break in July, 250 or so Korean fans assembled at Citizens Bank Park to get an up-close look at Chan Ho Park, who in 1994 became the first Korean-born player to wear a major league uniform. It was a festive occasion, one the Phillies reliever embraced with a genuine joy, even as he became somewhat weary as the event wore on. With each click of the camera, his smile remained firmly in place. And while his hand began to ache from signing 1,000 autographs, he would have signed 1,000 more if the moment had called for it.

It is just how Park looks at things at these days. There was a time - and he freely acknowledges it - when such a scene would have been unsettling for him. In the early days of what has become a 15-plus-year career, he looked upon the adoration of his countrymen as an intrusion, a place to point the finger of blame if he happened to pitch poorly. Hysteria surrounded him whenever he went back home, where the crowds would become so intense, he needed two bodyguards just to have dinner. Whenever he was scheduled to pitch over here, the Korean population in whatever city he happened to play would come out by the thousands. According to Chul-Jin Kim, who is working on a documentary on Park for the Munhwa Broadcasting Corp., the pitcher "was and is a symbol of hope and strength for the Korean people."

Shouldering that assignment would have been hard for anyone. But age has imbued Park with a degree of wisdom. The 36-year-old pitcher has come to understand that his relationship with the fans is reciprocal - that they are just as significant to him as he is to them. Even if the adulation he receives occasionally seems excessive, he wonders where he would be today if he did not have the fans' positive energy to draw on. So he enjoys the attention from his Korean fan club in Philadelphia in a way that would have been hard for him as a young man who spoke no English.

"To be honest with you, I used to hate it when people would ask for autographs - again and again and again," says Park, whose English has improved since he began playing in the United States. "Now, I want to meet as many people as I can. Because each person is special. I appreciate it more than I used to. Without the Korean people to support me, I know I would feel lonely and sick."

To grasp how strange America once seemed to Chan Ho Park, he tells a funny story of the first time he came to the United States. In Los Angeles with the South Korean national team, he was part of a contingent of players touring Universal Studios. Later that evening, they attended a game at Dodger Stadium, of which Park says now, "I thought it was a part of Universal Studios. We were so high up, it looked like a movie." He remembers buying a Dodgers jacket and thinking, "If I could only pitch on that mound." Two years later, that aspiration became a reality when the Dodgers signed him and he found himself in spring training taking instruction from a genial older fellow with gray hair.

Park sensed that the man was a former player.

Someone later explained to him it was Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax.

"I had no idea who he was," says Park, who has pitched well for the Phillies since being replaced in the starting rotation by J.A. Happ in May. "I just knew he was a nice man who was trying to help me. Even when I played for other teams, I could call him and get his advice."

Unable to communicate with his teammates back then, Park found the adjustment hard. "Living here was like hell back then," says Park, who added that in those early days he considered quitting and going back home. But he emerged as a fine pitcher for the Dodgers, and he began to better understand the American culture as the years passed, in part due to the help he received from members of Los Angeles' Korean community. He remembers how they cooked him Korean food and helped him with his English. Says Park, who is now married and has a daughter: "My Korean friends taught me English, and I learned more about the culture from there. That was very helpful."

Help also came from sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, who works with the clients of agent Scott Boras. Former Dodgers teammate Kevin Brown introduced Park to Dorfman, who immediately recognized the stress Park was under. While the Korean community served as "a bridge" into American culture for Park, it also accounted for the increasing degree of pressure Park found himself under. Dorfman says that Park had to "justify his existence" as the first Korean-born player in the majors and that he has to "please his following, not embarrass or disappointment." That pressure only increased when Park signed a $65 million contract with the Texas Rangers and found himself in the minor leagues. Park says he was so stressed, he began losing clumps of hair.

Dorfman is not surprised.

"Someone can give you love and support, but if you do not perceive it as such, where does that bridge lead?" says Dorfman. "In his better moments, I am sure he appreciated [his Korean fans]. I hear players say, 'I resent what these [fans] are doing to me.' And I change the wording: You should resent what you are allowing them to do to you . . . Chan Ho has a better understanding of his place in the culture now."

Stops in San Diego, New York (with the Mets) and back in Los Angeles helped Park along on what Dorfman refers to as his journey to "self-growth." He says he "pays attention now" to the needs of others, which is why he formed a foundation that lends scholarship aid to young people back home whose circumstances have been devastated by South Korea's collapsing economy. It is also why he was concerned when the Phillies sent him to the bullpen, if only because it would be harder for fans in South Korea to know when he pitches. Even with the 13-hour time difference, Park says fans back home follow him closely on television.

Park laughs. "When we play at 7 p.m., the game is on at 8 a.m. over there," he says.

"If I have a bad outing, people over there feel bad for the whole week," he says. "If I have a good outing, people over there feel good for the whole week."

But that is not just the case in South Korea. In Philadelphia's Korean community - which numbers 80,000, according to restaurateur Kwang W. Park (no relation) - Chan Ho has become a subject of giddy conversation. While Chan Ho lives in Haddonfield, N.J., he occasionally visits the Korean enclave in the Olney area, where he has enjoyed the company of some members of the Chan Ho Park Fan Club. He says they are "true baseball fans." Kwang even drove to Miami to see Chan Ho pitch.

Local businessman Edward Chung points to Kwang and says, "He is crazy."

Kwang smiles. "So far I have been to Washington, New York, Atlanta and Miami," he says. "I have found it to be easier to get a ticket out of town than here."

Delaware State professor Keun Kyu Kim says, "He even had dinner with Chan Ho."

The 42-year-old Kwang says, "Korean people feel a brotherhood for him. We loved him before he came to the Phillies, and we love him even more now that he is here. We want him to stay forever."

The Korean television crew was with Chan Ho Park for 10 days in July and had come back again for another 10 days. As the Phillies wrapped up their homestand that Sunday against Florida, the producer, Chul-Jin Kim, said the crew planned to travel to Chicago with Park, who had been more than generous in allotting his time for a projected 1-hour documentary. Kim said no expense has been spared in the production, because of Park's stature in Korea.

"In Korea, he is like a god," the producer says.

Park thinks of himself in far more human terms. When he reflects on his baseball career, he thinks less of himself than of the young players in Korea who will follow him into America. He says there is "unbelievable" talent in his homeland. While he knows there always will be language and cultural barriers for Korean players to overcome, he hopes it will be easier for them than it was for him as a young man. Because whatever else Park has accomplished during his career, he is more proud of this than anything else: He opened the door for others to walk through. *

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