Korean slugger Park settling in with Twins
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Byung Ho Park sat at his locker in the Minnesota Twins’ spring training clubhouse, sipping a cup of iced coffee, oiling a first baseman’s glove and interacting with teammates.
He’s relaxed. There’s no hint of anxiety, which would be natural considering the challenge he faces.
Instead, the Korean slugger is excited about making the transition from his homeland to the major leagues. His goal is to make noise with his bat while quietly going about his business off the field and getting acclimated to life more than 7,500 miles from Seoul.
He likes the warm Florida weather that greeted him at his first big league camp this spring. He hasn’t given much thought to how cold it can get in Minnesota in the middle of winter, though that reality is coming.
The Twins hired a full-time translator to help the two-time Korean Baseball Organization MVP deal with a language barrier that Park is diligently working to overcome.
The 29-year-old’s English is far from perfect — but he is making strides communicating with teammates, coaches and manager Paul Molitor and felt comfortable enough to conduct his first interview in English without translator J.D. Kim. Hand gestures had to be used at times to communicate with Park, who sometimes had to be paraphrased but was able to express himself well with short responses.
"I’m very excited," Park told The Associated Press, a smile spreading across his face. "Everybody’s nice. Teammates, coaches make time to help me."
The infielder/designated hitter is not a typical rookie.
Park turns 30 on July 10 and comes to the majors after spending nine seasons in the KBO, most of the past five with the Nexen Heroes.
He hit 105 home runs in his final two years, including a career-best 53 with a league-record 146 RBI’s in 2015. He also posted personal highs in games (140), at bats (528), runs (129), hits (181), doubles (35), batting average (.343) and slugging percentage (.714).
Minnesota, hoping to add some power to the middle of the lineup, envisions Park as a DH and backup first baseman behind Joe Mauer.
The Twins paid Nexen $12.83 million for negotiating rights and signed the slugger to a four-year, $12 million contract in December.
"He’s fit in really well. He’s had a good camp," Molitor said. "We’re seeing a guy who’s been around. He’s played a lot of baseball, and the confidence he had as a Korean player, we’ve seen it begin to transfer over here. Every day is kind of a learning experience for him right now."
On and off the field.
Park’s wife, Ji Yoon Yi, and son, Seung Ri Park, will move to the U.S. after the regular season begins. But outside of acknowledging those plans, the slugger — a national hero and instantly recognizable back home in South Korea — is reluctant to talk much about what he likes to do when he leaves the ball park.
"My family will come to Minnesota," Park began before politely cutting the answer short. "I want privacy. Understand? … Sorry."
Park is joining the majors a year after former Nexen teammate Jung Ho Kang made his big league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates, hitting .287 with 15 homers and 58 RBIs.
While the two of them remain close, Park said he hasn’t relied on Kang — still recovering from a knee injury suffered while turning a double play against the Chicago Cubs last September — to be a mentor.
His friend did offer one piece of advice that the rookie is taking to heart.
"He said to me: `Hey, baseball is baseball,’" Park said. "He said just try your best, you will be fine."
So far, so good.
Park hit a grand slam against the Tampa Bay Rays for his first spring training homer and through Monday was batting .283 with three home runs and 13 RBIs — second on team behind Trevor Plouffe’s four homers and 14 RBIs.
"I think he’s one of those thinkers in terms of he likes to sit on pitches. I think he tries to look for patterns and things he can try to capitalize on," Molitor said. "But he’s handled himself, and his at-bats, really well."
The Twins also like what they’ve seen of Park as a first baseman.
Although, he won three Gold Gloves at the position in the KBO, Molitor said he’s been receptive to coaching that could help him become an even better fielder.
"There were some things we tried to tighten up that weren’t huge flaws as much as to give him a little better chance" for a smooth tranistion, the manager said. "Everything from how he flips the ball to the pitcher to his positioning when he takes throws on the base and learning how to create angles in throwing situations.
"Most things that have been said have been put into practice rather quickly, which is a good sign."
Not that Parks has any doubts about his ability.
"I played first base for 10 years," he said. "I don’t think it will be a problem."
He’s just as confident he’ll have an impact offensively, too.
"Now it’s just exhibition games," Park said. "I try every day to study and learn the pitchers. I feel good about what I can do."
So do the Twins.