THE Los Angeles Dodgers, who haven't appeared in a World Series since 1988, when they beat Oakland, continue to be among the game's pioneers in breaking down ethnic barriers.
The Dodgers' latest project is South Korean rookie Chan Ho Park, a 20-year-old, 6 ft., 2 in. right-handed pitcher whose fastball has been radar clocked at 97 miles per hour. He has also endeared himself to National League umpires by following his country's custom of bowing to the men in blue whenever he enters or leaves a game and when he comes up to bat.
Invited to spring training by General Manager Frank Claire but expected to be shipped out to the Dodgers' Albuquerque, N.M., or San Antonio farm clubs, Park has probably won himself a spot on the team's Opening-Day roster. And while there are no Dodger guarantees that he will stay, his low earned-run average in the Florida Grapefruit League is what got him his chance.
Asked for a quick evaluation of Park, Claire replies: ``If Chan Ho were an American and had been eligible for last June's college draft, he probably would have been among the top five players picked. We think he is going to help us for a long time.''
The Dodgers are the same National League franchise that shattered baseball's color line in 1947 (when they were based in Brooklyn, N.Y.) by putting infielder Jackie Robinson into a major-league uniform. Robinson went on to become the NL's Rookie of the Year.
The Dodgers also operate a baseball school for young players in the Dominican Republic and created a sensation in the 1980s by purchasing the contract of a then-obscure pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela from the Puebla Club of the Mexican League.
In fact, because of California's heavy Mexican population, attendance at Dodger stadium increased between 10,000 and 20,000 fans every time Valenzuela was scheduled to pitch. Valenzuela also won Rookie of the Year honors, in 1981.
Attracting Korean fans
With a Korean population estimated at more than half a million within a 33-mile radius of Dodger stadium, and since most things in Hollywood are created sequel, L.A. is hoping for a second version of ``Fernandomania.'' The Dodgers already broadcast seven games a year in Korean.
Park is not nearly as advanced a pitcher as Valenzuela was, however. Valenzuela had been playing against professionals in Mexico since he was 15 at the time the Dodgers signed him and was baseball-wise well beyond his years. Like Park, Valenzuela didn't speak English when he started, either.
Park's high kick off the mound - his left leg not only gets into Space-Shuttle territory but also distracts the batter - is reminiscent of former major-league pitcher Juan Marichal, one of the best of his time. Park has many different windups and deliveries - sometimes holding the ball over his head, sometimes hanging his leg in midair during his kick, sometimes slowing down or stopping.
The moves, common to pitchers in Asia, are calculated to break a batter's concentration. His hesitation delivery has been challenged by rival teams in spring training, and Park may have to abandon it on occasion.
Terry Reynolds, the Dodgers' scouting director, has been tracking Park since 1991 when, at the age of 17, Park pitched in an international friendship tournament in Long Beach, Calif., against teams from Japan and the United States. Reynolds has also seen Park compete in tournaments in Buffalo, N.Y., and Seoul, South Korea.
$1.2 million bonus
``Even at 17, Park's fastball was outstanding,'' Reynolds told the Monitor. ``His mechanics were also very good. In fact, the kid has all the physical tools to be a major-league pitcher. But coming from another country, and being unable to speak our language yet, makes it tough for him. He also needs to learn our organization and get settled mentally.''
Park's contract with the Dodgers was negotiated by his uncle, Steve Kim, a Los Angeles architect who emigrated to the United States from Korea in 1974. Kim and his family plan to allow Park to share their home indefinitely. Park's $1.2 million signing bonus compares favorably with the $1.3 million the Dodgers gave pitcher Darren Dreifort of Wichita State, their No. 1 pick in last June's college draft.
According to Kim, the Dodgers were competing for Park against the Atlanta Braves, plus three or four other major-league organizations that had also shown an interest.
Even though most fans assume that Park must have already pitched in Korea's eight-team major league, where each club plays 120 games a year, Park was actually a sophomore at Han Yang University when the Dodgers signed him.
Umpires more forgiving
Player ratings at the college level, Kim says, are different in Korea than in the US. For example, the number of national tournament invitations a pitcher receives during the season is considered more important than his won-lost record.
Park, who was also a terrific hitter in high school, was not allowed to swing the bat in college because of Korea's designated-hitter rule.
``For Park, I think it is only a matter of time before he makes the big leagues,'' Kim says. ``But I wouldn't want to see him rushed before he is ready. One thing I think will help him here immediately is that the strike zone in the United States is larger than it is in Korea.''
What Kim meant, after some probing, is that although the width of home plate (17 inches) is the same in both countries, South Korean umpires tend to squeeze the strike zone and not call pitches strikes when they catch the corners.
``Here, Park will get those calls,'' Kim said. ``We are also very grateful for all the help he has received from Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser.''
Park, whose father runs a small electrical appliance business in Korea, also has a brother with several black belts in the martial arts and a cousin who is a pro golfer.
At a Dodger team roast during spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., Park got the biggest laugh of the night when, in his limited English, he referred to L.A. owner Peter O'Malley as his godfather.