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Park’s minor league demotion latest setback for Korean star

Byung Ho Park

Minnesota Twins’ Byung Ho Park, of South Korea, watches teammates during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Chicago, Wednesday, June 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)


NEW YORK -- Byung Ho Park‘s demotion to the minor leagues is just the latest setback for the Korean star.

The Minnesota rookie became expendable when the Twins recalled Miguel Sano on Friday. Before the roster move, Park had bounced around the Twins lineup and struggled especially with runners on base. Through 62 games, the slugger was hitting .191 with 80 strikeouts.

Far from the performance you’d expect from the 29-year-old who had his own theme song in South Korea complete with dance moves and set to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

With fans having little to dance about since Park came to the United States, the setbacks this season have stalled significant hype and potential marketability to fans in Asia.

“Baseball-wise (in MLB), I’m still adjusting and learning and definitely still in that learning period,” Park said through his interpreter, J.D. Kim.

Known by the nickname “Park Bang” with the Nexen Heroes from 2011-15, Park led the Korea Baseball Organization in home runs (53), total bases (377) and RBI (146) in 2015. The Twins took notice and paid $12.85 million just to win bidding rights to negotiate with Park, then signed him to a four-year, $12 million contract.

But Park’s stardom in the United States was never a guarantee and he’s struggled with the noticeable talent jump in pitching. During one stretch in June, he struck out eight times in 11 at-bats, prompting manager Paul Molitor to pull him from a start to give him a mental break.

Park’s major league struggles have led the Twins to hold off on pursuing marketing deals back in his homeland, team spokesman Dustin Morse said.

They’re still eager, just like other clubs who also have Asian players, like Korean hitters Dae Ho Lee of the Mariners and Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates. Clubs have seen the benefits of success by other stars from the continent, like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Shin-Soo Choo and Yu Darvish, among others.

Suzuki, of the Miami Marlins, is a rare example of an Asian star who achieved the same level of stardom within a year of coming to the United States.

In an All-Star 2001 season with the Seattle Mariners, Suzuki was the American League MVP and rookie of the year, and also won a Golden Glove Award and a Silver Slugger Award. His marketing power has kept pace with his success each season -- Suzuki was recently honored for reaching 4,257 hits between the Japanese and North American major leagues, surpassing Pete Rose’s MLB total.

Because of Suzuki, Miami’s games are now broadcast in Japan and the team’s front office officials have gone to Japan each offseason to make connections in Asia, Marlins president David Samson said.

“We are trying to make inroads there and we would love to be the team of Asia like we are the team of Latin American because we are Miami,” Samson said.

The Twins want similar connections in South Korea, sending executives to talk with companies in the country about ideas for the future.

“We’re trying to let Byung Ho Park establish himself as a baseball player and since it’s his first year in Major League Baseball we’re not trying to go too over the top,” Morse said.

If Park can turn things around and establish himself in the majors, U.S. fan support and marketability could follow in his favor. Lee saw that with the Mariners after not knowing if he would even make the 25-man roster during spring training.

"(Lee) has become very popular amongst our fans,” Mariners spokesman Randy Adamack said. “They recognize him now. They get excited when he comes to the plate. His face is becoming more and more familiar around town and he’s got kind of a cult following.”

The best way to gauge Park support in the MLB is spotting his jersey among fans in the stands, Morse said. The team had a promotional day for its first Korean player during the first month of the season, selling tickets at Target Field in a special section dubbed “Byung Ho’s Balcony.”

Before Park’s demotion, Minnesota officials were planning another promotion tied to Park for a July game against the Athletics.