Byung Ho Park had visited the United States once before, when his Korean team, the Nexen Heroes, trained in Arizona last spring. But he had never ventured outside the Phoenix area. So what does he know about Minnesota, his probable new home?
“I’ve heard lots of things about it,” Park said through interpreter Jae Woong Han said on Sunday, moments after landing at MSP International Airport. “Mostly about the weather.”
Way to live up to the hype, Minnesota.
Park was at least prepared for Monday’s morning snowstorm, anyway, saying he had packed a heavy winter coat in his suitcase for the 12-hour flight to Minneapolis, through Chicago. It’s not likely to deter him from signing a contract with the Twins sometime in the next eight days, when the team’s negotiating rights expire.
The 29-year-old slugger, who hit 105 home runs the past two seasons for Nexen in the Korea Baseball Organization, was careful to say that no deal has been struck, that he is here to explore the city and meet the Twins’ officials. His agent, Alan Nero of Octagon Baseball, is due here today or tomorrow, and the “I hope a [contract] can be settled,” Park said.
So how many home runs will he hit for the Twins next year? “I can’t think about baseball yet,” Park said. “Contract is first.”
Park’s understanding of English is only rudimentary at the moment, though he said he is learning more all the time. He is likely to have an interpreter travel with him throughout his rookie season at least, much the way Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka did during his days with the Twins. He asked that I not shoot video of our interview, in part because he’s uncomfortable with the language — and partly, he said, because he feared he looked jet-lagged after such a long journey.
He spoke only a few words of English in our 20 minutes together, though one instance was very funny. He volunteered, through Han, that he had given up bat-flipping, a habit earlier in his career, last season upon the advice of fellow Korean players. When I asked if he had reconsidered, since some fans enjoy the spectacle, he needed no interpreter: Pointing to his head, he said in English, “No. No beanballs.”
Park knows quite a bit about American baseball, several times calling it, “the greatest level in the world,” and making it clear he relishs the challenge ahead. He said he has faced several non-Korean pitchers in the past year, in South Korea and in international tournaments, and believes the adjustment to the U.S. won’t take long.
He said he has spoken to Rangers outfielder Shin-soo Choo and Dodgers lefthander Hyun-jin Ryu about playing in the majors; they didn’t give him advice as much as encouragement, Park said.
“Choo told me, ‘You can play here, absolutely,’ “ Park said. “ ‘You have the talent for the top level.’ “
He’s much closer to Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kong, his teammate for four seasons with Nexen. In fact, like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau with the Twins, the pair shared an apartment during their early years as teammates.
“I asked Kang what the major leagues are like, and he told me, ‘it’s the best baseball, the best players in the world. You will enjoy it,’ “ said Park, who informed the Twins he will prefer the “Americanized” version of his name — Byung Ho Park, each word capitalized, no hyphen between the first two names — once he is in uniform. “He said, ‘You play here for a month, and you’ll [be fine]. You’ll know what to do.’ “
He’s already used to being a famous face. There were 6-8 Korean fans hanging around baggage claim when he arrived, clearly hoping to meet him. He seemed sincerely flattered to be recognized so far from home, and signed autographs, posed for pictures and chatted with every one of them.
“He’s a big star in Korea,” said Seung Hwan Lee, who came to the U.S. last year to study at the University of Minnesota. He heard through friends back in South Korea that Park would be arriving Sunday, and brought his friend, Bom Shin, to the airport to watch for him. “I’m glad he’s coming to Minnesota, so we can see him play.”
Added Kevin Kim, a former pitcher who has lived in Minneapolis for 17 years, “I’ve been waiting for the Twins to sign a Korean player. Having him here is going to be exciting.”
Not so exciting for Nexen fans back in Seoul, though. Park said that the reaction to Kang’s departure last year was mixed, and he expects it to be the same for him. It’s not easy for a team to lose a player who batted .343 last season with 146 RBIs, after all.
“Fans liked Kang going to the major leagues, and also at the same time, they were not happy to send him. It’s a mutual feeling at once — they’re happy but not happy,” Park said. “It’s the same for me. People are happy I can play at the biggest level, but they’re also sad that they have to send me to another league.”
But Park, who said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in MLB, was philosophical about his fans back in the KBO.
“I know that when Kang left, another player filled the gap,” Park said. “And maybe if I get to come here, another player will have a chance to fill in the gap and play well, too.”
TWINS SIGN THREE, INCLUDING TWO FAMILIAR FACES: The Twins on Monday added a few more players for next year’s training camp, signing outfielder Joe Benson, lefthander Aaron Thompson and catcher Juan Centeno to minor-league contracts.
Twins fans should be familiar with the first two names. Benson was Minnesota’s second-round pick in 2006 and spent seven seasons in the organization, reaching the majors for 21 games in 2011. He was eventually claimed on waivers by Texas, and has spent the past three seasons bouncing around the Marlins, Braves and Mets systems. He’ll turn 28 in March, batted .248 for two minor-league teams last year, and is considered a solid defensive outfielder.
Thompson earned a spot in the Twins’ bullpen last spring, and posted a 2.11 ERA in his first 17 appearances, encompassing 21 1/3 innings. He grew less effective as the season wore on, with a 10.64 ERA in his last 24 appearances, and he was sent to Rochester on July 6, then outrighted off the 40-man roster last month. But he pitched well at Rochester and left-handers have batted .189 against Thompson in his career, so he will likely be given another shot next spring.
Centeno is 26 and adds to the Twins’ organizational catching depth. He has played 24 major league games with the Mets and Brewers over the past two seasons, and though he was just 1-for-21 in 10 games with Milwaukee last year, he is a career .280 hitter in the minors and threw out 39 percent of base-stealers.