Twins’ Park hopes Korean fans will start the day watching his game

January 8, 2016
Park Byung-ho puts on the Minnesota Twins uniform at a press conference in the Grand Hilton Seoul Hotel, Thursday. (Yonhap)

Park Byung-ho puts on the Minnesota Twins uniform at a press conference in the Grand Hilton Seoul Hotel, Thursday. (Yonhap)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — Given the time difference between the United States and South Korea, Major League Baseball (MLB) games are televised or streamed in the morning hours for fans here.

And Park Byung-ho, who recently signed with the Minnesota Twins, said he wants to give his supporters at home something to cheer about at the start of their day.

“When I was young, I started my days watching Park Chan-ho pitch,” Park said in a press conference in Seoul on Thursday, referring to the first South Korean to play in the majors. “And there are several South Koreans in the majors today. I want to make sure baseball fans here will have pleasant mornings watching us play.”

This was Park Byung-ho’s first public appearance in his native country since signing a four-year deal worth US$12 million with the Twins in early December. He reached the deal after the Twins won the right to negotiate with him thanks to a $12.85 million posting bid.

Park last played in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) for the Nexen Heroes. He’d led the league in home runs in each of the past four seasons before making the jump, and became the first KBO player to post back-to-back 50-homer seasons, with 52 in 2014 and 53 in 2015.

Park, 29, will be joined in the majors by Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles.

Kim was the second KBO player to move to MLB this offseason after Park. Incidentally, Park’s Twins will visit Kim’s Orioles to open the 2016 season at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 4.

The two will first have to make the Opening Day roster, but Park is already looking ahead to the possible matchup against his former KBO foe and teammate on the national squad.

“I think it’s great that we’ll have a chance to play against each other in the majors, after we both played in the KBO,” he said. “I know we’ll both play with a lot of pride. It should be a great one.”

When asked what kind of a scouting report on Kim he will give to his Twins’ pitchers, Park said, “I’d say he is a hitter with no weaknesses.”

Kim enjoyed a stellar KBO career, but Park himself has been no slouch. He is a two-time MVP with two second-place finishes in voting, and posted his most productive season in 2015. He established career highs in Triple Crown categories with a .343 average, 53 home runs and 146 RBIs — a KBO single-season record — in 140 games. He also set personal bests with a .714 slugging percentage, 181 hits, 129 runs scored and 35 doubles.

It capped off a dominant four-year stretch in which he belted 173 home runs with 492 RBIs. He only missed four out of a possible 533 games in that time span.

Park said he doesn’t have a particular team or pitcher he’d like to face — though he’d like to see the Dodgers’ three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw pitch in person — and added he wants to focus on his own preparations.

“Clearly, MLB is a superior competition to the KBO, and it’s where the best players in the world are playing,” Park said. “I can’t predict how I am going to perform. I’ll need to adjust and it will take time. My biggest goal is to be ready as quickly as possible and have a satisfying season. I know Minnesota has big expectations for me and I want to live up to them.”

Park was a high school star but didn’t live up to his considerable promise early in his career, after getting drafted by the LG Twins in 2005. He also missed two seasons while completing his mandatory military service, but a mid-season trade to the Heroes in 2011 turned his fortunes around. By the following year, Park developed into the feared slugger that many had expected him to be.

Park admitted that the Minnesota Twins had first approached him in high school, but he wanted to play for the other Twins club in Seoul, LG, because he’d grown up a fan of the KBO club.

Park said he told Minnesota that he’d consider signing if LG didn’t draft him in the first round. He was taken in the first round, though it wasn’t until much later that he became an everyday player.

“I’d like to thank everyone at the Heroes organization,” Park said. “The coaches always encouraged me to dream big dreams. Without them, I wouldn’t even have dreamed of reaching the majors.”

Park’s contract with Minnesota, though, left skeptics scratching their heads for its modest value, since the total amount of a contract typically exceeds the amount of the bid submitted for posted players such as Park. That Park signed the deal about a week before the negotiating deadline with Minnesota also raised some eyebrows.

Park acknowledged the posting system — in which the bidding winner has exclusive negotiating rights with the player and thus has more leverage — inherently works against players, but he also “wanted to get the deal done with quickly and start getting ready for the new season.”

Park has been a first baseman for the majority of his KBO career but is expected to serve as designated hitter for the Twins. Long-time franchise star Joe Mauer, once an MVP-winning catcher, is now the team’s everyday first baseman. To make room for Park, the Twins are trying to convert last year’s DH, Miguel Sano, into a corner outfielder for the new season.

Park said he’d told the club he’d prefer to play in the field, too, but that he understands he’s the one who has to adjust at first, given the team’s current depth chart.

No matter where he ends up playing, Park’s bat should add some much-needed punch to the Twins, which ranked in the lower half of the American League last year in hits (14th), home runs (10th), slugging percentage (12th) and extra-base hits (10th).

Park is following in the footsteps of Kang of the Pirates, his former Nexen teammate and the first KBO player to reach the majors via posting. After a shaky start, Kang went on to hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs in 126 games. He finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Park said Kang told him not to tweak his techniques too much and to have more confidence in his swing.

“I think I should stick to the type of swing that I think will give me the most power,” Park said. “Kang Jung-ho told me if I can just play through the first month, then my body will react and adjust naturally.”

Just as Kang did last year, Park will work out first with the Heroes in Arizona before formally joining the Twins for their spring training in Florida.