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Wednesday, May 1, 2002
Updated: May 2, 10:37 AM ET
ESPN The Magazine: Save It!

By by Tim Keown

You want to know one thing: Is he okay? The question is always italicized, always earnest and concerned. It's a light touch on the forearm and a deep gaze into the eyes and No, really -- is he okay? He looked so sad, so vulnerable, so alone out there in front of the world, cupping his head with his hands, trying to squat low enough to disappear. This young man -- this kid, really -- became everybody's victim, and five months later we need to know.

So start here: Byung-Hyun Kim -- 23 years old, rich, handsome, a world champion -- is confused by the concern. Standing ovations followed him this spring. They roared at Bank One Ballpark when he was announced on Opening Day. Somehow, against all known odds, 2002 has the feel of a victory tour. First he was touched by the outpouring, then amused, then his thoughts started angling toward irritation. Now it's all mixed up in there, the sympathy and the gratitude and the overriding desire to be done with it. Exasperation is a good word, because when the world goes out of its way to tell you everything's all right, you start thinking it might not be. Kim tugs at his cap and says to the floor (and to his interpreter), "Really, I am fine. I am not a kid."

The word, in Kim's native Korean, is kkoma (like the English "coma"), and he uses it frequently, probably because the world has referred to him as "that poor kid" ever since his unprecedented failures in Games 4 and 5 of last year's World Series. In Game 4 he gave up a game-tying, two-run homer with two outs in the ninth to the Yankees' Tino Martinez, then a 10th-inning solo game-winner to Derek Jeter. In Game 5 he gave up another game-tying, two-out, two-run homer in the ninth, to Scott Brosius. ("It's too cruel even in a movie or fiction," wrote a sportswriter for a South Korean daily.) Is it possible to put such a public meltdown aside and continue? Yes, Kim says with a grin that is trying its best to remain pleasant. The team won, he says, and I am not a kkoma.

He says the sympathizers are missing something: It was never about him. There was a lot of "Why him?" floating around after Game 5, but there never was any "Why me?" Any questions about his own feelings are deftly directed elsewhere. "I was thinking only about my teammates and the fans, not myself," he says. "I was sorry that I dragged them down." Kim said when it was over, when the Diamondbacks won Games 6 and 7 to take the World Series, it was truly over. He shrugs. Can't you see?

Kim speaks through his best friend, Sung Ju, and the translation seems a little loose. Sung is a friend first, an interpreter second. Kim says, "I have tasted the worst part. I had all the confidence then, and I have more confidence now." Sung stops as Kim adds something. For more than 20 minutes, Kim has been sheepish and reserved, but there is a force behind these words that cuts through any language barrier. Sung thinks for a moment after Kim finishes, then says, "I don't know the English for what he just said, but in this country you would say something like, 'Heart. It gave me more heart.'"

Sung, who had dinner with Kim after Game 4, puts it in his own words: "This could have been different for someone else, but BK's always confident. That's what people don't understand. He believes in the idea of chi. There is a balance of good and bad. BK believes the worst is behind him, and from here everything is good."

Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly was widely criticized for calling on Kim in Game 5, but Kim says, "Bob Brenly asked if I could go. I said yes. I wanted the ball. People said he made a mistake, but he didn't. I was ready." Asked now if he ever feared he had done irreparable damage to Kim's psyche, Brenly says, "I hoped I'd read him right, and I see no reason, then or now, to indicate I was wrong."

So, is BK okay? As Kim speaks on this late-spring Sunday morning, an ESPN Classic replay of Game 4 plays silently on two TVs hanging in the Diamondbacks' spring training clubhouse. The scene is unnerving, as if accentuating the inescapability of his situation. He doesn't seem to either notice or care, but as his teammates file past his corner locker on their way to the training room, they glance at him to see if he is watching. They aren't looking to chide him; in fact, like everyone else, they seem genuinely concerned, perhaps wondering if they should turn it off. They're merely wondering, Is he okay?

"He's such a good kid," catcher Damian Miller says. "Everybody on this team loves him to death."

Interviewing Kim in a crowded room is a bit daunting. There are a lot of flinty old pros in this room, like chain-smoking Mark Grace, thoughtful Todd Stottlemyre, ageless clubhouse raconteur Mike Morgan. And they all have his back, just as they did when he made his big league debut on May 29, 1999, at Shea Stadium. Kim, 20 years old, was set to face Edgardo Alfonzo, John Olerud and Mike Piazza in the ninth, with the D-Backs leading by a run. Before he could throw a pitch, Mets manager Bobby Valentine walked toward plate umpire Larry Poncino to protest the size of Kim's glove. ("Bobby doing what Bobby does," says Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr.) It was clearly a ploy to unnerve Kim, who had no idea what was happening. Before Valentine could launch a protest, Matt Williams met him and told him in no uncertain terms to leave the kid alone. Valentine did, and the Diamondbacks have been issuing the same message ever since.

After Brosius' homer in Game 5, Grace went right to the mound and put an arm around Kim. Backup catcher Rod Barajas was close behind, trotting out from behind the plate. They threw out a few platitudes they're not sure he even understood, and they vowed to come back -- for him. He understood that part. "There's a lot of respect for BK in this clubhouse," says Stottlemyre. "The way these guys put their arm around him showed that. They weren't going to let him be out there by himself."

Kim is understandably uncomfortable with the attention. As a subject, he is somewhat problematic. When someone's hobbies are video games and sleeping, when someone enjoys nothing more than an afternoon at the mall, you know going in it's not going to be a weekend with Robert Downey Jr.

However, the man's sleeping skills are beyond dispute. He is a mythic sleeper, a veritable Hypnos. His teammates call him The Lion (as in The Tokens' 1961 hit song, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"). He sleeps in the training room, by his locker, on buses and planes. On this Sunday morning, Journey is emanating at tarmac-level decibels from the clubhouse stereo. (Yes, Journey -- the world champs are what's termed a veteran ballclub.) Morgan points to the stereo and says, "You want to know how BK can sleep? You could put him in a chair, with his ears next to that stereo blaring '70s hits, and he could be asleep before you turn around. I'm telling you, the man can sleep. That hasn't changed. I don't know where he is right now, but I guarantee you he's either sleeping or working on his motion."

So, decide for yourself: Is he okay? And if he says he is, do you believe him?

Ability is not in question. Around the Diamondbacks, it's not even open for discussion. Kim's submarine nastiness is even nastier this year; pitching coach Chuck Kniffin is helping make Kim's change match up with the rest of the dastardly repertoire, a slider and a low-90s fastball. There was no apparent psychological hangover in spring training (ERA under 2.00), and his first three weeks of the season produced three saves in six games and a 0.00 ERA. Brenly says Kim is Arizona's closer until further notice, or at least until Matt Mantei's elbow recuperates, most likely in June at the earliest. (Kim hopes to be a starter before season's end.)

Work ethic is not in question, either. Kim's deceptively sturdy legs are the result of martial arts (he's a black belt in tae kwon do, which his father, a master, teaches in South Korea) and incessant work on his twisting pitching motion. He practices in front of the mirrors in the training room and during most nonsleep hours in the bullpen. After a game, he has been known to head for the batting cage, alone, and throw a bucket of balls.

Kim is one of the few Asians who signed with a big league club without prior professional experience. He was a college pitcher for two years in South Korea and was scouted by the Diamondbacks after his international success drew the attention of major league clubs. Whenever someone mentions the concept of pressure, and whether Kim has the proper closer's mentality to withstand it, someone associated with the Diamondbacks is sure to bring up the Asian Games in 1998. Kim was a starting pitcher for South Korea, and during the tournament the country's president told the players a gold medal would relieve them of their compulsory military obligation. Kim won the semifinal game, South Korea won the gold, and now Brenly says, "If you want to know what this guy's made of, there it is. You want to be in a dugout or a foxhole? Now that's pressure."

(There is also a certain amount of pressure inherent in being followed around the U.S. eight months a year by five journalists from your home country. To put it in perspective, the D-Backs are covered by two traveling writers from Arizona newspapers, five from South Korean newspapers.)

And heart? However it's translated, his teammates will tell you it's been there all along. In 1999, at age 20, with precious little minor league experience and almost no understanding of English, Kim was forced to assimilate into two cultures -- America and the notoriously quirky big league clubhouse. America was easy. The clubhouse, with its rough-hewn etiquette and seniority-based customs, was another story. "I felt so sorry for him," says Stottlemyre, who forged a close relationship with Kim while spending last year on the disabled list. "He probably didn't understand at least half of what was happening every day. To be here and have no one understand you or your culture? Man, that's tough. I grew up in the game, and even I can remember being young and feeling almost paralyzed because I didn't know if I was doing the right thing."

Kim didn't always help his own cause. Unwittingly, he carved out a minor comic legend. When he was introduced to Morgan during spring training two years ago, he was informed that Morgan was entering his 22nd season in the big leagues. Kim misunderstood, and innocently said, "You look old for 22." Morgan laughed, but Kim was so bothered by his mistake that he later asked a clubhouse attendant to take him by golf cart to Morgan's practice field. "I apologize," Kim told Morgan. "I should have said you look young for 22 years in the big leagues."

After being called up in late May '99, there were times when Kim would disappear from the bullpen, retire to a nearby room inside Bank One Ballpark, turn off the lights and -- of course -- sleep. This practice lasted until the call came one day for Kim to warm up and bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock had to wake him up. "BK had to learn some things," Miller says. "Basic things. Like, you can't fall asleep during a major league baseball game."

There are less obvious signs of maturity and confidence. After traveling with an interpreter for his first year and a half in the majors, he is considering dropping him for fear it separates him from his teammates. He has made a concerted, and largely successful, effort to learn English, constantly asking teammates and coaches for advice and clarification. Now he conducts basic postgame interviews without help.

Is he okay? Put it this way: Everyone in the clubhouse has a gaudy new ring, and on Opening Day at Bank One they had a ceremony that would have made Caligula blush. Is BK okay? Look around.

In the fall-of-Saigon pandemonium following Game 7, the in-stadium camera panned across the field and found Kim wandering dreamily in right-center. Garagiola was nearby, and he yelled, "BK, look up!" Kim looked at the big screen and the ovation came down like hail, so loud some teammates were startled by the commotion. Garagiola says, "It was 50,000 people trying to give him a hug."

So maybe we keep looking for his redemption without realizing we missed it. Grace and Barajas gave him hugs on the mound, and 50,000 fans gave him one through a four-story electronic screen. His team won. They were winners, and so he is a winner. It's really that simple. Don't you see?

Still, Game 4 plays on above him in the clubhouse. Byung-Hyun Kim doesn't seem to notice, but Martinez is about to hit his two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. Jeter's winner is still out there, waiting to happen. Kim might be fine, but he's not yet free.

If he thinks he is, he just has to listen for the next roar of the crowd. Every ovation is redemption, and every ovation is a reminder.

This article appears in the May 13 issue of ESPN The Magazine.