TAMPA, Fla. - As Chan Ho Park explored his new locker room yesterday morning, he rounded a corner and nearly crashed into an old teammate. Alex Rodriguez evaded him, smiled, then initiated a brisk man-hug with two pats on the back.
"Hey, Chan Ho, great to see you again," said Rodriguez, who once played with Park in Texas. It was a welcome dash of camaraderie for the pitcher, on a day otherwise spent lamenting the loss of last year's friends. Standing in the locker room of the defending World Series champions, Park made clear that he regretted leaving Philadelphia.
"I had a wish after the season," Park said. "Philadelphia was the No. 1 choice. I had a tough time leaving there. I had much support from fans and community, and I had the best teammates there, so -"
Park, whom Brad Lidge called the "MVP of our bullpen" in 2009, expected to remain with the Phillies, and was seeking a raise from the $2.5 million he made last season commensurate with his stellar performance. His agent, Jeff Borris, negotiated with the Phils through mid-December, when general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. publicly declared the discussions dead. Philadelphia then replaced Park with veterans Danys Baez and Jose Contreras. Park agreed last week to a one-year, $1.2 million deal with the New York Yankees, and reported to spring training yesterday.
Discussing an off-season that he called "frustrating," Park was surprised to be wearing a different uniform.
Asked why negotiations with the Phillies failed, Park said: "Too late. Too late. Too late. It didn't work well in the beginning, and later on, too late. . . . They were talking, and it didn't work. Trying to get a deal, and it didn't work out. And then later on they just gave up, and I lost."
One potential reason for the Phils' lack of aggressiveness in bidding for Park was manager Charlie Manuel's view that the righthander was not always willing to pitch through minor injuries. In complimenting Baez and Contreras last month as pitchers who would never refuse to take the ball, Manuel was likely offering tacit criticism of Park.
"I was disappointed in what he said," Park said. "That's what he thinks, but I don't think it has any meaning. He still is my favorite manager. I didn't talk to him, and I didn't believe it" when he first heard about the comments.
"But who cares? He's still my favorite manager. The whole team; they're the best. That's why it's so difficult to leave. The fans, especially the fans. They're the best."
Park's evolution last season from failed fifth starter to high-leverage reliever made him an essential Phillie. In 31/3 World Series innings against New York, Park struck out three, allowing two hits and no runs.
"We saw it in the postseason here," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "He just comes out of the pen with a plus fastball and a snapdragon breaking ball. He goes right at the hitters, too, so his personality and his tool set seem to play up a little bit out of the pen."
Rodriguez was also impressed. "His ball had a lot of movement" in the World Series, Rodriguez said. "He got big outs for Philly. It was like he was their go-to guy in the last stretch of last year."
The Korean righthander will not compete for a spot in the Yankees' rotation. Starting was important to him last year, and he was initially devastated when sent to the bullpen in favor of J.A. Happ in May. He said yesterday that he was more willing at age 36 to accept a relief role.
"I had success in the bullpen last year and the year before," he said. "But my favorite is to be a starter."
Park said that "some teams" were interested in him as a starter, but declined to name the teams. He preferred to remain a Phillie, anyway, and that would have meant relieving.
It is "mostly sad . . . to leave Philadelphia," he said. "I had fun last year. Good memories and things. That makes me sad, but in the future, [I'm on] a good team, and we have a chance to win. That's what's most important."
So he was excited to become a Yankee after all?
"We'll see," he said, shrugging.