SUWON-- Entering his age-37 season, KT Wiz slugger Park Byung-ho sees this year's World Baseball Classic as his final international tournament. And he wants to make the most of the opportunity.
"Considering my age and the schedule for upcoming international events, I don't think I will get to play for the country after this," Park said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, some 35 kilometers south of Seoul, on Friday. "I don't want to have any regrets at the end. To ensure that, I have to be in the best physical condition possible."
And that will be a challenge for Park, who is still recovering from a serious ankle injury he suffered during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game in September. He tore ligaments in his right ankle after jamming his foot on the second base bag and was initially ruled out for the season.
He came back for the Wiz's postseason run in November without undergoing surgery, but the first baseman was limited to designated-hitting duties. Though Park is still not at 100 percent, the national team staff saw enough in Park's progress that they put him on the 30-man roster for the WBC last Wednesday.
"I can hit, but it's baserunning and fielding that have given me problems," Park said. "I need to be able to take quick steps to play first base, and I think I am at about 70 percent there. I should be able to get to full strength by the start of spring training (in early February)."
That Park was named to the WBC team came as a mild surprise, considering his health and his absence from the 50-man "Federation Interest List" from November. Of the 30 players, Park is the only one not to have been on the initial 50-man team.
Park admitted he didn't expect to make the team either.
"A few days before the announcement, I heard from the KBO that I'd made the team," Park said. "I was happy and excited. But I also felt a lot of pressure on my shoulders. I know exactly what I have to do."
Park is one of few South Korean players who can hit for power from the right side. Despite his late season injury, Park still led the KBO with 35 home runs in 2022, and the national team will count on him to provide just that type of production at the WBC.
South Korea will play all preliminary games and, if it gets that far, its quarterfinal game at Tokyo Dome in the Japanese capital. Park doesn't have such fond memories of the iconic stadium, though, having struggled in the previous international tournament played there in November 2019.
At the Premier12, which doubled as an Olympic qualifying tournament, Park batted only 5-for-28, and was held hitless in four at-bats in South Korea's 5-3 loss to Japan in the championship final. Park was the lightning rod for criticism.
"Honestly, I didn't think I would put on the national team uniform again after the Premier12 in 2019," Park said. "I can still remember coming home that November. When a slugger homers at an international tournament, he becomes a hero. Otherwise, he ends up being a scapegoat."
Park said he won't offer any guarantee that he will redeem himself at the WBC, but he did promise maximum effort.
"What's crystal clear is I will try harder than ever before," Park said. "Rather than saying I am going to get my moment, I want to promise fans that I will do my very best." (Yonhap)