PEORIA, Ariz. – Hong-Chih Kuo has been making history for half his life, some of it world, some of it medical.
He’d as soon forget about the medical history.
When the Seattle Mariners signed the 30-year-old Taiwanese left-hander, they got a pitcher about whom everyone agrees: Kuo may be as good as anyone.
When healthy. Quite often, he hasn’t been.
Two Tommy John surgeries rebuilt his left elbow, and he has had shoulder, elbow and back injuries land him on the disabled list.
Last year, it was something entirely new – Kuo wound up on the DL for more than a month with an anxiety disorder. Translation: He lost the ability to throw strikes.
How bad did it get, before it got better? Warming up in the bullpen one day, Kuo hit a coach – who was on another field.
The first Taiwanese high school player ever drafted by a big league team, Kuo has never been a glass-half-empty guy. He doesn’t look at injuries, he looks at the opportunities he had to come back from them.
“I’ve done the work to come back to do what I love to do, play baseball,” Kuo said Sunday.
“When you’re first hurt, there are the negative thoughts. Then you see your teammates. You want to be part of that again and you start the work.
“After the Tommy John surgeries, I just went back to work.”
A reliever for the Dodgers who made the All-Star team in 2010 – when his 1.20 earned run average was the lowest in franchise history – Kuo never sees his problems as misfortunes.
“I don’t look at the injuries as bad luck. I’m a lucky guy to get the opportunity to come back, and my body has allowed me to come back,” he said.
In parts of six seasons, Kuo is 13-17 with 13 saves and a 3.73 earned run average. Something of a left-handed specialist, he has averaged 10.95 strikeouts per nine innings throughout his career.
Back on June 12, 2007, Kuo squeezed himself into baseball’s record books at the plate, not the mound.
Kuo hit the first home run by a Taiwanese player in big-league history.
“I was a good hitter in high school, when I played the outfield,” he said. “I remember the first two batters of the inning had hit back-to-back home runs against the Mets.
“I got a first-pitch fastball and hit it out. My teammates? They were all laughing. Was that my best day? Every day I’m happy to be here.”
When Kuo lost the ability to throw a strike, it was a different kind of injury than any he’d had, and potentially more serious. Left-handed specialists who cannot throw the ball over the plate – or even close to it – are not in demand.
“I had to try to enjoy baseball again. There can be a lot of stress in the game. I got back to enjoying it and finished the year strong,” Kuo said.
It wasn’t quite as simple as that. For the first time, Kuo faced something he couldn’t beat alone, something no solo rehab was going to fix.
“We all face challenges in life. I had one last year, and my teammates helped me through it – everyone helped me through it. My coaches, my wife, everyone,” he said.
Nor, he insists, is he concerned about a relapse.
“I don’t worry about it. I do my best, that’s all I can do. What’s happened before is the past. I don’t mind talking about it, but I focus on this year, on what’s ahead,” Kuo said.
Like facing lefties?
“I know a lot of left-handed hitters don’t like facing lefties. I get more aggressive,” he said.