Publish date:

Saved! Rebounding from last fall's debacle, Byung-Hyun Kim has a new weapon: a Hoffmanesque change

If Arizona Diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim is unoccupied for
more than two minutes, chances are he will doze off, and little
short of a sonic boom will rouse him. It's no surprise, then, to
hear how the boyish-looking 23-year-old spent the overnight
flight from New York City to Phoenix following Game 5 of the 2001
World Series against the New York Yankees. Despite having
surrendered three of the most dramatic and psychologically
devastating home runs in postseason history in a span of 24
hours, Kim was sacked out on the chartered plane before it had
finished taxiing to takeoff.

The righthander with the submarine delivery had given up a
game-tying blast by Tino Martinez in the ninth inning and a
game-winning shot by Derek Jeter in the 10th of Game 4, and a
game-tying homer by Scott Brosius in the ninth inning of Game 5.
Those three lightning bolts helped turn Arizona's
two-games-to-one Series lead into a 3-2 deficit. Fans went to bed
in the wee hours of Nov. 2 wondering if the first Korean to play
in the Fall Classic needed to be relieved of his belt and
shoelaces. Fortunately for Kim, the Diamondbacks' victories in
Games 6 and 7 in Phoenix transformed him from goat to footnote.
"The difference in how I feel," he said after the clinching
victory, "is like heaven and hell."

Kim didn't pitch in either of those final games, however, leaving
open the question of how he would react once he got back on the
mound. Five weeks into this season he had put those worries to
rest. Through Sunday, Kim had converted all eight of his save
opportunities and had allowed one run in 14 appearances. In 17
innings he had struck out 30 batters, walked three and allowed
one extra-base hit for Arizona, which was in first place in the
National League West.

Instead of struggling during spring training with his confidence
and control, as some had expected, Kim worked on sharpening the
changeup he had been using sparingly. Now the pitch has become an
effective weapon, especially against lefthanded hitters, who
started this season 2 for 25 against him. "If he has any
lingering effects from what happened last year," says
Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly, "he's hiding them well."

In his fourth season with Arizona, Kim is still as much of an
enigma to his teammates as he was when the Diamondbacks signed
him to a four-year, $2.4 million contract in 1999. That's partly
because of the language barrier--he understands some English but
rarely speaks it--and partly because he shuns social contact. "I
like to be alone," the unmarried Kim says through his
interpreter, Sung Cheul Ju. "I don't like many people around me,
just one or two good friends."

Even though hitters have had difficulty catching up with his
93-mph fastball and his sweeping slider, which appears to rise
through the strike zone, Kim suffered frequent lapses in
confidence in years past. At such times he nibbled at the
corners, a habit that led to spates of wildness (44 walks in 98
innings last season). "I think when he first got here, he had a
sense that if anybody got a hit off him, he had failed," says
Arizona general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. "And if he lost a game,
he was a complete failure."

Those feelings were compounded by homesickness and the intense
scrutiny Kim was under in South Korea. "When I came here, I felt
pressure to pitch well and win every game for my country," he
says. He stayed in Phoenix most of the off-season rather than
face the clamor that would engulf him in his homeland.

Kim didn't discuss his World Series performance with any of his
teammates this spring, other than to say, "I'm fine," when asked
how he was feeling. Embarrassed that he didn't contribute more
during the Series, he treasures his championship ring as he would
an old sock. Seconds after receiving the ring on April 2 at Bank
One Ballpark, he dropped it, dislodging one of the diamonds,
which was lost in the infield grass. "I don't wear it," he says
of the ring. "I don't like it."

Nor does he particularly enjoy his role in the bullpen.
Throughout his years of high school, college and international
amateur ball in South Korea, the 5'11", 180-pound Kim had made
his mark as a starter. "I am not a closer," he says, this time in
forceful English.

"I believe his best use is late in games," says Garagiola. "Could
he start? I don't know. He's a pretty determined guy."

Kim watched the official World Series DVD this winter, and he
says he's set on proving that his performance against the Yankees
was an anomaly. It's something for him to think about when he
curls up in an airplane seat and dozes off. --Stephen Cannella

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER From the depthsCrushed by Brosius's homer (top), Kim was 8 for 8 to start 2002.