Hyun-Jin Ryu signed a $36 million contract with the Dodgers. (AP)
GLENDALE, Ariz. – So, there's a bit of a mix-up on the schedule. It reads that Hyun-Jin Ryu should be throwing, like right now, on the field over there. But he's standing, waiting for Zack Greinke to finish, on this field here, and a guy in a golf cart is offering to run Ryu over there.
Except, and these things happen, Ryu is thinking the mound is only, like, 50 feet away and it really would be no problem just to walk halfway across the infield. Sure, there had been some wind sprints and a side session in the bullpen, but he was quite sure he was still capable of carrying himself another 50 feet. You know, if the great (and significantly older) Greinke walked it then he himself should be able to walk it, too.
So, the guy in the cart is asking in English if he's sure he doesn't want a ride to the other field and Ryu is saying in Korean he'll be fine getting himself to this mound right here, when at precisely the same moment they both realize they were running parallel planes there for a while, laugh and shake their heads and move on with their days.
With some effort, then, Ryu covered the ground required to throw his first live batting practice of the spring and therefore with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who 2½ months ago sprung for the $36 million contract on top of the $25.7 million posting fee for Ryu. And he was fine. It's February and, generally speaking about February, as long as a pitcher's arm does not fly from his shoulder, spin like a copter blade and take out Tommy Lasorda, the day is at best – and worst – fine.
The stone-faced Dodgers lined the back of the batting cage to watch, from Don Mattingly to Mark McGwire to Sandy Koufax and others, and afterward agreed the kid had some life in that arm, some deception in that delivery and some more than reasonable pitches. Later, Mattingly said Ryu reminded him in some ways – body shape, ease of delivery – of David Wells, the old doughy-bodied lefty with the easy delivery. And that, too, would be fine, though it is way too early to know what Ryu might remind people of come, say, April.
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The good part in all this, in a camp of great expectations where you can't fling a pitcher's arm without taking out a star player or two, Ryu seems to be adjusting. When he was done throwing his 40 pitches, Ryu was met by pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and led into a quick meeting with Koufax, not far from where the golf cart fiasco had occurred. In his soft voice, which was translated for Ryu, Koufax, in about three minutes, taught Ryu a new grip for his curve ball.
Koufax advised Ryu to grip the baseball, which is slicker in the U.S. than it is in South Korea, deeper in his hand. The message seemed to be less thumb-push and more natural tumble, and then Koufax slowly guided the ball with his right hand over his left forefinger. They'd work on it, Koufax told Ryu, if he wanted to in Ryu's next bullpen session. Ryu responded with something between a nod and a bow and then Koufax went off to fix something else.
Just because baseball is pleasantly populated by foreign-born players and has been for decades doesn't necessarily make the transition any kinder for the latest arrivals. But Ryu has a coy and easy way about him, perhaps not so tightly wound as some others. Also, he wears very cool aviator shades and holds a pingpong paddle in that fingers-down way Americans ferry dirty diapers. And, in this goofy clubhouse game in which players transferred small spongy balls from one fishbowl to another using chopsticks, Ryu won. Going away.
"Of course," he said. "I can't lose."
Ryu has some quirky in him, and perhaps that's because for 16 years or so he's been throwing with the wrong arm. At 10, when Ryu began to play baseball, his father, Jae-chun Ryu, bought him a brand new baseball glove. Though his young son was clearly right-handed – writing, eating, throwing, everything right-handed – the new glove would not fit on his left hand. Jae-chun might have been a rugby player, but apparently knew enough about baseball to understand the benefits of being a left-hander. Having only that one baseball glove, Hyun-Jin shrugged and became a lefty.
All these years later, Ryu was wealthy for it, and then stood on a baseball field in the Arizona desert in a crisp Dodgers uniform being taught Sandy Koufax's iconic curve ball. By Sandy Koufax himself. Hell, if things keep going this well, maybe next time he'll take that ride to the mound in style.
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