FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Byung Ho Park was 26 and had emerged as the most valuable player in the Korea Baseball Organization in 2012. The unofficial roster for South Korea’s team for the 2013 World Baseball Classic was revealed later in the year, and Park was left off in favor of other first basemen:
Dae-ho Lee, Tae-kyun Kim and Seung-yeop Lee, a KBO legend who was 36 and being honored for past accomplishments.
Park responded to this snub by winning the MVP award again in 2013. And then he led the KBO with 52 home runs in 2014 and 53 home runs in 2015.
South Korea announced its provisional roster for the 2017 WBC last November. Again, Park was not on the list. Those rosters became official on Wednesday and South Korea’s first basemen were Lee and Kim.
Park arrived at the Twins’ Florida complex on Sunday and started working out on Monday. He finished a workout that included batting practice on Thursday morning.
He was asked if not being on South Korea’s WBC roster was partially his decision – a reflection of a desire to have a full spring training with the Twins?
Park looked at interpreter Jae Han to fully understand the question, answered in Korean, and then Han said:
“He would have liked to play for the Korean team. He says there was a better player than him for first base.’’
Park was a 29-year-old rookie with the Twins in 2016 and wound up getting sent back to Class AAA Rochester. The massive Dae-ho Lee, known as “Big Boy’’ in Korea, was a 34-year-old rookie for Seattle and batted .300 with 19 home runs and 68 RBI.
Also: Kim batted .359 in the KBO last season and is the highest-paid player in the league, so he was locked in as a member of the team.
Park’s comment on the World Baseball Classic was more instructive about him than the strength of South Korean baseball. The interviewer had offered up an excuse – Park preferred to be here to try to establish himself with the Twins – and he waved it off:
Park wanted to play in the WBC and there were better players to fill first base for South Korea. Simple as that.
He came off as a humble person with a dream of major league success on arrival here for 2016 spring training. A year later, he has endured several humbling things in his career, and the top of the list came last week:
The Twins took Park of the 40-player big-league roster.
He cleared waivers on Thursday and was placed on the Rochester roster. He will be in spring training with the Twins, but as a considerable underdog to Kennys Vargas (among others) to open the season as the team’s designated hitter.
Park was asked about the roster demotion, answered in Korean, and Han said:
“Derek Falvey called him and explained the decision. He said don’t pay too much attention to the media, which probably will say the Twins now have everything planned for him (to be in the minor leagues).
“Falvey said he still is in the picture to make the team, and to have a good spring training.’’
Terry Ryan was the general manager who signed off on the Twins’ investment in Park after the 2015 season: a $12.85 million “posting fee’’ that went to the Nexen Heroes, his KBO team, and then a four-year contract that guaranteed $12 million for Park.
Ryan was fired last summer and Falvey was hired with the title of chief baseball officer in October. The Twins dropped Park from the 40-man roster knowing that he would clear waivers with $9.25 million still due.
Perhaps, if Park lights it up this spring, he could open as a righthanded option at first base for Joe Mauer, who doesn't hit lefties as once was the case (or righties, for that matter).
Park was the Twins’ regular DH through the first three months of the 2016 season. He played in 62 games and started 60 of the Twins’ first 76 games. He was showing power and hanging in as a hitter during his first 32 games. He hit two home runs in Cleveland on May 13; three days later, he was batting .257 with nine home runs and 15 RBI, and 38 strikeouts in 109 at-bats.
And then Park lost it – or the scouts and analysts by then had found the formula to turn him into a big-league out.
Park played in 30 games from May 17 to June 28. He batted .123, with three home runs and nine RBI, and 42 strikeouts in 106 at-bats. The Twins sent him to Rochester after a five-game stretch when he was 0-for-16 with 10 strikeouts.
He was asked several questions on Thursday about trying to hit in the big leagues. As he talked to Han, the English word “timing’’ was interspersed several times.
It was clear in his answers that Park’s main concern when he arrived here a year ago was to be able to catch up to the fastball. That was also the storyline from the get-go:
Could a power hitter who struck out often while feasting on 88 miles per hour fastballs in Korea make contact with 94-mph fastballs in North America?
“When I came here, I tried to adjust to the major league fastball,’’ Park said.
Did the pitchers see him starting a bit early and making him vulnerable to a breaking ball off the plate?
Park shrugged and said: “Timing the fastball. That is what I had to adjust to. That is what I am trying to do.’’
Park was optioned to Rochester at the end of June. He injured a wrist in the middle of July, kept playing for a time, and wound up having minor surgery in September. He played 31 games in Class AAA and hit 10 home runs, but with a .224 average.
“He hit some bombs,’’ said Stew Cliburn, the pitching coach at Rochester. “And his attitude couldn’t have been better. He’s a great young man; very positive. He’s nice to everyone – teammates, the guys in the clubhouse and around the ballpark, and the fans.
“There was nothing even close to pouting from Byung Ho when he came to our club. He worked hard with the idea that he was going to have success and get back to the big leagues. The wrist thing kind of messed that up for him.’’
I was talking with Park and Han outside the Twins minor league clubhouse at noon Thursday, when Cliburn walked past. I said to Park, “That man is a fan of yours.’’
Park understood and said through Han:
“This is the path I have chosen. I am going to work hard and stay positive. That is why I am here early. Maybe that is why the pitching coach, Stew Cliburn, said good things.
“I have my dream, to succeed in major league baseball.’’