Originally created 02/26/03

Bong keeps close eye on the news

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - He calls home every day. He figures he spends $100 a week checking on his parents and three older sisters. In between phone calls he watches television for the latest news.

For Korean-born Jung Bong, the 22-year-old Atlanta Braves left-hander, the nuclear missile crisis in North Korea is very real. The law of the land in South Korea is mandatory military service for all men 18 and older. He has been granted an extension by the South Korean government and won't begin serving the mandatory 28 months of service until he's 31.

In the meantime, he is hopeful of receiving permanent resident status through the U.S. Immigration Service.

"I'm a little bit worried about (North Korea)," said Bong, who finished sixth in ERA in the Southern League last year at 3.25 and averaged 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings. "We don't want to go to war. We try to help North Korea. They don't have food or money. Hopefully everything will be fine."

"It's got to be playing on his mind," manager Bobby Cox said.

Bong, who grew up in Seoul and arrived in the United States five years ago knowing little English, has translated a terrific Arizona Fall League performance into a legitimate shot at winning a job. His strengths are a good fastball, an outstanding change-up and excellent command.

"He's always had pretty good stuff," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said.

Now comes the hard part - beating out Jason Marquis as the fifth starter or winning a job in the bullpen.

"He's a legitimate prospect," Cox said. "He has a chance to be a pretty good pitcher up here."

Bong already has his major-league debut out of the way. He was called up from Class AA Greenville to make an emergency start April 23 and pitched six innings in a 5-2 loss to Curt Schilling and the Arizona Diamondbacks. A taste of the big leagues didn't have the desired effect on him. Soon after, he went through a six-start stretch at Greenville (6.58 ERA) that got him demoted to the bullpen. He returned to the rotation two months later and went 3-1 with a 1.14 ERA.

That was a prelude to Arizona, where he raised his stock by posting a 3-1 record in eight games with a 1.50 ERA.

"I went (to Arizona) and got so much confidence and became more aggressive," said Bong in fluent English. "I said, 'Wow! I can do this.' I think I'm 100 percent better now than I was last year."

Bong is rooming with another lefty this spring, Horacio Ramirez, who is also bidding for the fifth starter's job or a spot in the bullpen. They compete fiercely on the field and are good friends away from the game.

"I like competition," Bong said. "If two guys do 10 sprints, I want to do 11 or 12. There's a lot of competition here right now and that's good."

Besides pitching in the majors, Bong has another goal. If he makes the South Korean Olympic team or the team his country sends to the Asian Games and wins a gold medal, his military duty will be excused. He can't think of a better incentive.

"(Mandatory service) comes at a bad time for me," he said. "If I serve, I'm done (in the major leagues). It's very important, the Olympics and the Asian Games. I hope they need a lefty."

While he pursues his dream of playing in the majors, his parents and his country are never far from his mind.

"I call home every day," he said. "It's expensive, but I have to talk to Mom and Dad. And I watch CNN. They talk about war every time I watch."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.


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