By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
Chan Ho Park quietly looked over a gallery photo of himself, taken at the 1993 signing of his first professional contract, one that took him from South Korea to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Behind him, a glass case held several archived newspapers and magazines touting his signing, including one Korean paper that blasted in bright red the headline “He will step onto the Major League mound!”
Park was at the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo on Aug. 27, to visit the current exhibit “Dodgers: Brotherhood of the Game,” which runs through Sept. 14. A week after his former teammate, Hideo Nomo took the same tour, Park appeared humbled by his inclusion in the exhibit.
“It feels good and exciting, to think how many kids might come to see this,” said Park, who has abandoned the short-cropped hairstyle he wore as a player for a shaggier, more chic look. “Especially for something that celebrates baseball from Asia, I hope this helps them dream big.”
“Dodgers: Brotherhood of the Game” traces the team’s history as well as the role it has played in community-building and civil rights, and the enormous impact it has had on the globalization of the game of baseball. Both Park and Nomo are prominently featured in the exhibit, and museum president and CEO Greg Kimura emphasized Park’s place in local sports history.
“You are an icon to a whole generation of Asian Americans, not only as a great athlete, but as a representative of your community,” Kimura said at the small gathering that included Park’s family, several museum staff and volunteers, and a small handful of reporters.
Also on hand was former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who is often credited as being the man who, by bringing Nomo to the U.S., opened the door to the wealth of baseball talent from Asia that followed.
“When they [Nomo and later, Park] first came to Vero Beach, I knew it was really a commitment, more than a challenge,” O’Malley remembered. “Tommy [Lasorda] and the coaching staff understood the unique nature of the situation, how they both needed support. Here you had a couple of guys not only away from home, but in a new land where almost no one around spoke their languages or really knew their cultures well. I think the whole staff showed great effort in shepherding them through those early days of adjusting.
“I knew they would be successful, but it wasn’t always easy,” O’Malley added.
Park said his memories of first meeting O’Malley remain vivid, as an almost miraculous series of events.
“I remember exactly; he came to my school in Korea in 1993,” Park recalled. “He came to meet me and the principal, and after that meeting, he came to my dormitory to meet me and introduced himself. I didn’t really understand why he was there, I thought he was just another American. Exactly two months later, he and I were at the same table signing a contract.”
Park said that signing day led to what he might have thought was a dream.
“Two years earlier, I was at a game at Dodger Stadium, sitting way up in the very top deck,” he explained. “I was looking down at those tiny people way down there on the field, and the crowd was very excited. That experience fed my dream to believe that one day, maybe I could pitch there, to be on that mound while someone up in the top deck was looking at me and dreaming in the same way.
“Exactly two years later, I was there, pitching for the Dodgers on the same team with the players I saw as a fan from the stands. Brett Butler, Orel Hersheiser and Mike Piazza were my teammates. I couldn’t believe it was really true.”
Park also credited Nomo as a forceful inspiration twice in his career, first as a high school player in South Korea, then again when he feared he had reached the end of his playing days.
“We followed Japanese baseball, and he was a player who was able to make it in America,” he said. “When I was still in school, lots of pitchers in Korea would follow his motion. I never dreamed of him actually being my teammate. That idea would have been weird. I mean, he was my hero, the best player in Asia, then the dream came true and even better, we were on the same team.”
Park said it was Nomo who helped him understand his importance to an entire nation, how the hopes of a people rode on his personal success.
“I came here as a kid, and I had to grow up. Hideo Nomo was the person I needed,” Park said.
Nomo also figured in Park’s career somewhat later, when the pitcher was sent to the minors and eventually cut loose, after a lackluster 2007 season with the New York Mets. He said the Japanese star reminded him of the ambitions he had as a young player, and to let that energy be his guiding force.
“He encouraged me to envision my future, and not to lose that dream, and I was able to come back,” Park explained. “He was done for his career, but I called the Dodgers and asked for a tryout. They invited me to Spring Training and I made the team.”
Park last played in the majors in 2010, when he pitched for the New York Yankees and then the Pittsburgh Pirates. On Oct. 1 of that year, he pitched three scoreless innings for the Pirates, earning his 124th career victory. The win put him past Nomo for the most ever by an Asian-born pitcher. He finished in the U.S. with 124 wins and 98 losses for seven different teams, and after a season playing in Japan and one back home in Korea, he called it a career in 2012.
By no means has Park left the game behind. Among his charity work and other projects, he partnered with O’Malley and Nomo in the establishment of Historic Dodger Town, a resort and training facility at the team’s former Spring Training location in Vero Beach, Fla.
The former pitching star has also tried to live up to the high expectations of someone who is seen as a baseball pioneer. He recalled counseling former Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Byung-hyun Kim, who was crestfallen after giving up two walk-off home runs to the Yankees during the 2001 World Series, even though Arizona went on to win the title.
“I told him, ‘Forget about your own failures. The great thing is when teams win.’” he said. “If you think about your own embarrassment, that’s selfish. Don’t worry about that. You have a lot to contribute to your team, and you won the championship, so you did well.”
The “Dodgers: Brotherhood of the Game” exhibit runs through Sept. 14 at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 North Central Ave. in Little Tokyo. Call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org for information.