A Southern California van ride and a weekend of Korean food began the process, and months of quality relief pitching sealed it. Chan Ho Park did not want to be a member of the Phillies' bullpen, but he is finishing the season as one of its key contributors - and enjoying it.
Manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee always maintained that the 36-year-old righthander's repertoire was more suited to the bullpen at this stage of his career, and the evidence has proved them correct. In seven starts in April and May, Park posted a 7.27 earned run average and was sent to the bullpen in favor of J.A. Happ. Since then, Park's numbers have been increasingly impressive, making him an essential component of a bullpen hobbled by injuries.
Look at the ERAs by month:
Before the All-Star Game, 5.49.
Since the All-Star Game, 1.65.
Don't like ERA? How about walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP)? Before the midsummer classic, 1.53; since, 0.92.
The primary differences have been aggressiveness and stamina, according to Park and his fellow relievers. From the bullpen, Park has been more inclined to throw strikes and challenge hitters, without needing to conserve energy for later in the game. Park said that as a starter, he had tried to be too fine with his pitches, to "do too much" in an effort to impress. Now that he is responsible for just a few innings, Park said, he feels more comfortable just lettin' it rip.
He also said he was much more comfortable in the social environment of the Phils' bullpen. The relievers are an especially tight group, and all the rest are Americans. That dynamic had been a barrier on other teams for Park, who became the first Korean to ever play in the major leagues when he debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994. Pitching for four clubs before arriving in Philadelphia, Park sometimes felt isolated from his teammates. He speaks English, stopping occasionally to search for the appropriate word, but said he had yet to find a group as accepting as the men in the Phils' bullpen. Still, though, it took time to feel comfortable.
When demoted from the rotation May 19, Park was crestfallen. He had not enjoyed relieving last season in Los Angeles and had signed with the Phillies with the intention of being their fifth starter.
"My favorite thing is to be a starter," Park said last week. "However, you can't live with your dream forever. Sometimes you've got to understand the now. Sometimes you have to search for another way to find your dream."
Several Phils relievers said in interviews last week that Park had been quiet at first and hadn't seemed comfortable in the group until an early June trip to the West Coast.
The Phillies played a three-game series in San Diego from June 1-3, then traveled to Los Angeles for four games. The MLB Network was filming its reality series The Pen, which featured the Phillies' relievers, and asked members of the bullpen to ride up the California coast in a van while cameras rolled.
In the series, the quality time offered by the ride was presented as a turning point for Park, when he finally opened up to new colleagues and began to enjoy his assignment. Several Phils relievers said last week that the narrative arc was accurate, and that Park had first shown his humor and personality during that van trip.
It helped that L.A. was the destination. More than one-third of Koreans in the United States live in California, according to census data, and more than 50,000 of them live in an area of about six square miles in Los Angeles. Park played a total of nine seasons in two stints with the Dodgers; L.A. is Chan Ho's town.
In the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium and around the city, Park became more outgoing. He had Korean food delivered to the ballpark for his teammates, who enjoyed the cuisine. He felt at ease in his knowledge of the city. This reporter was driving out of the stadium in heavy traffic one night and heard a knock on a window in the next lane. It was Park, stuffed into a Jeep with Chad Durbin, Chris Coste, and other teammates. Smiling broadly, Park rolled down the window and asked, "Hey, man, you need directions?"
After that trip, Park began to forget about his disappointment and appreciate his circumstances. While some teams had failed to fully include Park socially, the Phillies turned cultural differences into humor. Park is often baffled by American clichés like "turn the page" and asks his teammates to explain them. Members of the bullpen recently devoted significant time teaching Park to spell and pronounce elbow.
The camaraderie has more serious benefits as well. Park has watched Brad Lidge maintain his natural optimism during a trying season and said he had learned from the closer how to confront adversity without losing confidence.
"I've played with a lot of teams, and I see why this team is successful," Park said. "Sometimes it's not good enough to be a good-hitting team or a good-fielding team. It's the philosophy. It's the balance of people."