If Arizona diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim is unoccupied for more than two minutes, chances are he will doze off, and little short of a sonic boom will rouse him. It's no surprise, then, to hear how the boyish-looking 23-year-old spent the overnight flight from New York City to Phoenix following Game 5 of the 2001 World Series against the New York Yankees, Despite having surrendered three of the most dramatic and psychologically devastating home runs in postseason history in a span of 24 hours, Kim was sacked out on the chartered plane before it had finished taxiing to takeoff.
The righthander with the submarine delivery had given up a game-tying blast by Tino Martinez in the ninth inning and a game-winning shot by Derek Jeter in the 10th of Game 4, and a game-tying homer by Scott Brosius in the ninth inning of Game 5. Those three lightning bolts helped turn Arizona's two-games-to-one Series lead into a 3-2 deficit. Fans went to bed in the wee hours of Nov. 2 wondering if the first Korean to play in the Fall Classic needed to be relieved of his belt and shoelaces. Fortunately for Kim, the Diamondbacks' victories in Games 6 and 7 in Phoenix transformed him from goat to footnote. "The difference in how I feel," he said after the clinching victory, "is like heaven and hell."
Kim didn't pitch in either of those final games, however, leaving open the question of how he would react once he got back on the mound. Five weeks into this season he had put those worries to rest. Through Sunday, Kim had converted all eight of his save opportunities and had allowed one run in 14 appearances. In 17 innings he had struck out 30 batters, walked three and allowed one extra-base hit for Arizona, which was in first place in the National League West.
Instead of struggling during spring training with his confidence and control, as some had expected, Kim worked on sharpening the changeup he had been using sparingly. Now the pitch has become an effective weapon, especially against lefthanded hitters, who started this season 2 for 25 against him. "If he has any lingering effects from what happened last year," says Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly, "he's hiding them well."
In his fourth season with Arizona, Kim is still as much of an enigma to his teammates as he was when the Diamondbacks signed him to a four-year, $2.4 million contract in 1999. That's partly because of the language barrier—he understands some English but rarely speaks it—and partly because he shuns social contact. "I like to be alone," the unmarried Kim says through his interpreter, Sung Cheul Ju. "I don't like many people around me, just one or two good friends."
Even though hitters have had difficulty catching up with his 93-mph fastball and his sweeping slider, which appears to rise through the strike zone, Kim suffered frequent lapses in confidence in years past. At such times he nibbled at the corners, a habit that led to spates of wildness (44 walks in 98 innings last season). "I think when he first got here, he had a sense that if anybody got a hit off him, he had failed," says Arizona general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. "And if he lost a game, he was a complete failure."
Those feelings were compounded by homesickness and the intense scrutiny Kim was under in South Korea. "When I came here, I felt pressure to pitch well and win every game for my country," he says. He stayed in Phoenix most of the off-season rather than face the clamor that would engulf him in his homeland.
Kim didn't discuss his World Series performance with any of his teammates this spring, other than to say, "I'm fine," when asked how he was feeling. Embarrassed that he didn't contribute more during the Series, he treasures his championship ring as he would an old sock. Seconds after receiving the ring on April 2 at Bank One Ballpark, he dropped it, dislodging one of the diamonds, which was lost in the infield grass. "I don't wear it," he says of the ring. "I don't like it."
Nor does he particularly enjoy his role in the bullpen. Throughout his years of high school, college and international amateur ball in South Korea, the 5'11", 180-pound Kim had made his mark as a starter. "I am not a closer," he says, this time in forceful English.
"I believe his best use is late in games," says Garagiola. "Could he start? I don't know. He's a pretty determined guy."