Kuo Off for the WBC With a Smile

VERO BEACH, Fla. - For almost five years it was the same whenever meeting Hong-Chi Kuo. "How are you feeling, Kuo? Honestly, now."

The answer was invariably the same, "I hurt here," as he pointed to a spot around his left elbow, accompanied by a grimace. It became almost as ritualistic as the playing of the national anthem before a game.

And there were coaches who would indicate that he probably should have pointed to his head. "Kuo?" they would answer. "Forget about him. He's one of those guys that wants out with every little twinge. He just can't stand pain."

Certainly he had his defenders but even one of those commented, "With all the surgeries they've done, he'll never have the fast ball he once did. He'll have to learn to pitch differently if he wants to stick around."

And there were his teammates who spoke of the many times, he allowed that it was just too much. That he was going to give it all up and return home to Taiwan.

All of which makes the transformation that occurred last season that much more remarkable. Throwing with seeming ease once again, the ball jumped from his hand as he climbed-no, make that vaulted- from Class A to the big leagues in a matter of months.

Now, when he sees you ,he's smiling as he answers. "I feel great,"is the reply. Was he tired at the end, for after all, he put in almost a full season, something he'd never been able to do before. "No, I was strong."

His fast ball had gone back up into the mid-90's, he says he's able to go into games two or three times a week, if need be, so, in all, he looks very much ready to compete for the vacant lefty's slot out of the bullpen.

But is he? For on Sunday, he will leave for Japan to join the team representing Taiwan (officially called Chinese Tapei) in the World Baseball Classic which starts March 3. Thus, while Grady Little is back here evaluating his competitors for the job, he's far, far away and Little has already gone on record as saying that could very well factor into his decision, not only for this position but for all those who chose the tournament over trying to make this team.

You'd think that he might well join Eric Gagne and Russell Martin, who turned down Team Canada, in declining the honor. But there's always that other factor that he has to consider. Taiwan has two years of compulsory military service for its men and Kuo has never fulfilled that obligation. But such nations have been known to waive the duty for players on national teams that acquire international honors. So, the hope that, if they do well in this event, maybe he can elude the draft.

It's the same for shortstop Chin-lung Hu, who's also on that team. He may well be here, either as a non-roster invitee or in the advance minor league camp which just opened. After all, he's the best prospect at his position the Dodgers have. But he's in the same position as Kuo.

In a way, it's ironic that Kuo may have to done whatever uniform Taiwan selects for him for he's become very Americanized during his stay here. He has a home in Los Angeles and didn't even go back to the island nation once during the off-season. He's fluent in English, has a steady girl friend here, even some pet dog. He's one of us, folks.

Whether he'll be one of the Dodgers at the start of the season, though, is in question. In the meantime, though, he says he doesn't even worry about hurting his arm when he's out there. This from a guy who was often tentative on those rare occasions when he was allowed to pitch.

Oh, he admits his curve isn't quite where he wants it (and it can be as devastating a weapon as that fast ball). But he's smiling, he's ready and, if they think he can go back to starting down the road, that's fine, too. And he's in the major league clubhouse as he's talking.

What difference a year makes.