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Tears of pride

Korea’s first major leaguer bids farewell to baseball after 19 seasons

Park Chan-ho sheds tears during a press conference to announce his retirement in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap News)
Park Chan-ho sheds tears during a press conference to announce his retirement in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap News)
Ending his 19-year professional baseball career, veteran pitcher Park Chan-ho said Friday he is looking forward to opening a new chapter in his life and helping develop the sport in his native land.

Park, 39, first announced his retirement on Thursday through his South Korean club, the Hanwha Eagles, and held a press conference Friday to talk about his decision.

“I’d like to say this is not an end, but a new beginning for me,” Park said, at times holding back tears. “I decided to call it quits to map out a new future and to pursue new challenges and dreams.”

In 1994, Park joined the Los Angeles Dodgers and became the first South Korean to play in Major League Baseball. He won 124 big league games, more than any other Asian-born pitcher.

After 17 seasons in the big leagues and one year in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, Park joined the Eagles in the Korea Baseball Organization before the 2012 season. Since he went to the U.S. during college, Park had never before pitched professionally in his native country.

Park helped pack stadiums early in the season, though he ended with a mediocre 5-10 record and a 5.06 ERA for the last-place Eagles. His final KBO appearance came on Oct. 3. He took a loss in 5 2/3 innings against the Kia Tigers, giving up five runs while striking out four.

Despite his struggles on the mound this year, Park said he considered himself fortunate to have played professional baseball for so long.

“I think I may be the luckiest guy in the history of Korean baseball,” Park said with a smile. “I was just a country boy who picked up baseball by chance. I just enjoyed playing the game and wanted to be better than my friends. I became more competitive, started winning championships, and eventually had the honor of playing in the majors for a long time.”

Park revealed his plan all along had been to play one year in South Korea, saying, “Pitching before Korean fans was my way of returning their love, and I think I did my best in that regard.”

He said he will now shift his focus to helping develop baseball in South Korea and that he plans to study the sport further in the U.S.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in the technical side of the game, and I want to teach young players some technical aspects through youth camps,” Park said. “I’d also like to be involved in baseball administration and operations. I’d like to act as a bridge between the U.S. and Korean baseball, and help the Korean league learn from the more advanced major leagues.”

Park said coaching or managing is “something I want to do and I think I have to do,” but added he will need to study more to become the best teacher of the game that he can be.

Park made the jump to the majors in 1994 as a college pitcher, but made only four appearances in his first two years. He pitched in 48 games, including 10 starts, in 1996, going 5-5 with a 3.64 ERA.

He became a full-time starter in 1997 and won 14 games. From 1998 to 2001, Park averaged more than 15 wins a season and was voted an All-Star in 2001, when he led the National League with 35 starts. He ranked among the top 10 in strikeouts in the National League from 1998 to 2001.

In January 2002, Park signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Texas Rangers but was slowed by an assortment of injuries. He never won more than nine games in a season for the American League club. A midseason trade in 2005 shipped him to the San Diego Padres.

After going 7-7 in 21 starts for the Padres in 2006, Park became a free agent and had a one-game stint with the New York Mets in 2007.

In his final three seasons, Park pitched mostly in relief roles for four different clubs, including the Dodgers for the second time in his career. He picked up his final MLB win in his last big league game for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Oct. 1, 2010.

Looking back on his career, Park said he was proud of himself not because of any major accomplishments but because of the way he endured numerous challenges.

“I’d like to pat myself on the back for the job well done,” Park said. “A lot of people have helped me set and realize my goals, and my drive toward those goals has kept me motivated for all these years. My mother told me she was proud of me, and that is also how I feel about myself.”

Internationally, Park helped South Korea win the gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok and earned three saves in 10 scoreless innings at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, where South Korea reached the final four.

As much as he enjoyed his professional career, Park said he also had fond memories of representing the country with fellow national team stars, most of them younger than he.

And channeling in his future manager self, Park advised younger stars to take a long view of their careers.

“Over the years, I found that Korean players always work hard and their competitive fire is well known in the majors, too,” Park said. “But sometimes, I think players can get too caught up in their drive to win and grow too obsessed with immediate results. I myself have experienced many failures in getting to where I am today. I want them to take a long-term approach on their careers and try to learn from their mistakes.” (Yonhap News)
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