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.