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Intimidation Factor

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From The New York Times, May 22, 2005:

 

 

Intimidation Factor Eludes Johnson... Mets reliever Dae Sung Koo, who had his last hit in high school, hammered Johnson's 91-m.p.h. fastball to the center-field warning track for a double in the seventh. Mr. Koo going deep off the Big Unit? Johnson dodged the first question about the hit. He might have been too embarrassed to discuss it.

___________

 

His Blue Sox uniform is pristine as always, the number 30 a cool cobalt insignia low on his chest. He takes a certain amount of daily satisfaction in identifying each new grass stain and mud patch that springs up like a rash during the course of each game. The whiter the jersey, the greater the accomplishment in dirtying it, perhaps.

In October, when pitchers and catchers report for spring training, the blinding sun usually puts up a fight before it takes leave, flinging sharp rays of light over the outfield scoreboard and scraping shadows over the field. November is full of joyous, bright afternoons that swelter and sweat their way into a cool dry evening as the crowds trickle into the stands. In December, the sun gets a headstart unfolding its long fan of light over the stadium, doing its best to bounce off the dull baby blue paint of the bleachers and into his eyes until it finally reaches the horizon and slides to home. By January, the evenings are humid and endless, the sun hanging in the sky like a cork refusing to sink. Occasionally giant fluffy storm clouds billow in from the sea, piling up behind the stadium wall, tempting him to look up instead of over home plate.

On the best days, the sold-out crowds fill the stadium—all two thousand of them—and he doesn’t think about what it was like. He doesn’t think about what it was like to have fifty-six thousand Mets fans on their feet for him, calling his name.

It’s not the same. Instead of a sleek dugout and the towering arc of Shea Stadium overhead, there are canopies of haphazard netting set up to protect the crowd. There is on-the-ground seating. There is a partially covered bleacher zone with an announcer’s booth perched awkwardly up top. The underside of the covered ceiling is trimmed in green. He does not understand this. Every part of the stadium has been painted to match the sky, except for the outside edge of the bleacher stand cover. Every day he stands on the pitcher’s mound and looks at it and wonders: why green? Did they have no ladders to reach that part of the cover? Did they think it gave a fitting contrast to the sea of blue all around? Did they dismiss all the volunteer fans who spent a day painting the stadium before they realized they had missed a spot?

The VIP seating area consists of plastic chairs that have been placed in narrow rows near the dugouts, just in front of the cantina where you can buy $11 pizzas. There used to be an ice cream chuck and a coffee cart, also barbecue, but those things have vanished and now the main stadium staples appear to be pizza, hot dogs, and beer.

It’s not the same.

But the crowd loves him. They make noise whenever he steps onto the field. Sometimes they chant his name. The grass still feels rich under his soles. The ball still feels solid and easy, a comforting weight in his hand.

These things haven’t changed. And so he keeps playing.




A junior reporter from the Morning Herald has made an appointment to interview him. Dae-sung doesn’t often speak to reporters, even though it is a long time now since he stopped needing a translator. He isn’t often in demand these days outside of the occasional nod to local Sydney sports sections wanting him to smile for the camera. He’s always done that very well.

But this year, this month, is different.

It’s the off-season, and the fall wind whips across his shoulders as he leaves the house, so he shrugs on his jersey as he heads to the stadium. He’s meeting the reporter there, on the field so that the reporter can get the requisite profile shot of Dae-sung standing on the pitcher’s mound, holding a ball and looking fierce. The reporter carries his own camera to cut down on freelance fees, as do most of the sports journalists he sees these days. He thinks it’s fitting, anyway—he carries his own stuff with him as well.

The reporter does the photoshoot first. Dae-sung dutifully squints into the sun and does his best to look serious. Afterwards they sit down on the bleachers and the reporter opens his messenger bag. He takes out a tape recorder and a notepad and the interview begins.

The reporter wants to know what that Saturday in May ten years ago was like, in his own words.

The reporter wants to know how it felt to have every eye in Shea Stadium on him.

He wants to know about the shoulder injury Dae-sung received that day—the one that ultimately ended his career in the major leagues just as it was beginning.

“Was it worth it?” the reporter says. “Was it worth it to give up the rest of your career in order to have that single at-bat and that moment against one of the greatest pitchers in major league history?”

Dae-sung stares at him. The incessant sun is in his eyes again so he probably looks as though he is scowling harder than he feels it on the inside. He is surprised at this feeling that has fluttered up inside of him after all this time. It stings. It’s bitterer than he has ever thought himself to be, when he chances to think about it. But still when he speaks, he is calm, despite the lump in his throat.

“What have I given up?” he says. “I have played every season since that day.” The reporter looks up, looking slightly startled. “I have spent twenty-two years on the field, just like Randy Johnson. Where is Randy Johnson now? Playing golf for charity. Playing baseball for fun.”

“Well, of course, but I mean—” stammers the reporter, but Dae-sung continues speaking.

“I have played baseball professionally on three continents. When I went to the major leagues I was recruited by two of the best teams in the U.S.,” he says. “I was treated like a rookie. Other players mocked me because my English was shaky. They made fun of my name. They made fun of me. Too old to play baseball, too un-American. And still I earned my place in the dugout. I was there every day until my injury and yet I kept playing. I never quit, never took time off. I have earned over $60 million throughout my career. Next season I will have played longer than Randy Johnson, and my career ERA with the Blue Sox will be a full point lower than Randy Johnson’s career ERA at his retirement.”

“Huh,” says the reporter.

“You ask me about the moment I became a punchline in American baseball as if it is the stellar moment of my career. In the U.S. they call me ‘pretty good’ because they only see that one moment. Yet I still play to sell-out crowds. I still hear people cheering my name. I still throw fast balls above ninety-five miles per hour. I am 45 years old and you ask me about two minutes as though they represent everything I have been and everything I will ever be in this sport. You do not ask me what it felt like to win an Olympic medal for my country, for Korea. Can Randy Johnson say he knows what that feels like? Can you?”

The reporter is red-faced by now. He’s young, and Dae-sung feels a momentary pang to be that young, to have many days of naivete still before him.

“What if someone asked you about two minutes of your life, a lifetime ago?” he asks the reporter. “What would they be?”

The reporter blinks.

“You have two minutes, and these two minutes alone everything about you will be judged for the rest of your career,” Dae-sung says. “What are they? Choose.”

“Uh, um, wait,” says the reporter. “Uh, I guess—maybe—shit. The time I got to cover the big bash? Only I annoyed one of the players at the press conference and then he accidentally swung a cricket bat in my direction later on during the match.”

“That’s it, then,” says Dae-sung. “That’s all you’ll ever be. Give up and go home.”

The reporter eyes him. “I get it,” he says. “No. I don’t want to do that.”

“Good,” says Dae-sung. “You don’t let those two minutes keep you contained. You contain them.”  

The sun has moved behind the bleachers, enough for him to un-squint for a moment, relax enough to add:

“But all that aside, it was freaking awesome.”





 

On the other side of the planet, Randy Johnson rolls off his sofa and saunters into the rec room of his $22 million Paradise Valley home (recently re-listed from $25 million—he and his wife are motivated sellers).

He ambles past his trophy case and his five Cy Young awards and ducks his head as he walks over to readjust the board from where his daughter had been playing the night before. He pauses. There’s a shelf built into the wall, and on it, within easy reach of the board, sits a loose manila folder with a sheaf of newspaper clippings. He thumbs past the first few—Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, José Jimenez, Mark McGwire—until he finds the one he’s looking for.

He takes it out and pins it into place. Then he takes his position across the room.

“Ten year anniversary, my ass,” he mutters, and throws a fast dart squarely into the center of Koo Dae-sung’s face.