Choi makes mark in short-lived Marlins tenure

October 31st, 2019

MIAMI -- A week into the 2004 season, Marlins fans were chanting his name. , then a 25-year-old left-handed-hitting sensation from South Korea, showed plenty of star power, along with his big smile and big-time potential.

From Day 1, Choi made people take notice.

On Opening Day, the slugger belted a three-run home run in the Florida Marlins’ 4-3 win over the Montreal Expos at Pro Player Stadium. Four days later, two more homers against the Phillies gave him three blasts in the first five games.

When he came to bat, he was often greeted with the crowd yelling: “Hee-Seop Choi! Hee-Seop Choi!” His following grew, with South Korean fans attending games, wearing his No. 25 jersey.

“He was a big loveable guy,” then-Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. “Everybody loved the guy. He was a super kid.”

But as quickly as Choi connected with the Marlins, establishing a cult following, his legacy with the organization abruptly came to a close just three months into the season when he was dealt to the Dodgers.

Choi never panned out the way the Marlins had hoped, especially after being acquired for a popular and productive player in , who went on to be an All-Star in Chicago.

Choi for D-Lee
The business of baseball was at the root of the Marlins acquiring Choi. The trade came at a high price because it meant parting with Lee, a Gold Glove Award-winning first baseman and a hero on the 2003 Marlins’ World Series title team.

A month to the day after the Marlins closed out the Yankees in six games on Nov. 25, 2003, Lee was dealt to the Cubs for Choi and right-handed pitching prospect , who never made it to the big leagues.

“Hee-Seop came in with a little added pressure, and of course, D-Lee went to the Cubs and took off,” said Juan Pierre, the Marlins' center fielder from 2003-05. “But Hee-Seop was a good dude. The fans loved him.”

Lee, a budding star, was in the arbitration process and made $4.25 million in 2003. His salary projected at $6 million for '04.

To meet the budget, the Marlins had several of their top starting pitchers in the arbitration process, and parting with Lee gave them payroll room to sign arbitration-eligible right-hander A.J. Burnett.

“It was determined to try to get value for D-Lee, and we found a partner with Chicago, and Hee-Seop Choi was part of that package to come back,” said Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill, then the organization’s assistant GM. “He was a controllable, pre-arbitration left-handed bat that we felt might be able to provide some offense for the lineup.”

Choi, now 40, was a prize prospect, signing with the Cubs for a bonus of $1.2 million in 1999. In his first season of Minor League Baseball, he lived up to expectations, hitting .321 with 18 home runs and 70 RBIs at Class A Lansing.

Choi made his MLB debut with the Cubs at age 23 in 2002, appearing in 24 games without much success, hitting .180 with two home runs in 50 at-bats.

In 2003, the first baseman split time at Triple-A Iowa and Chicago, playing in 80 games with the Cubs and hitting .218 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs.

Even without Lee, the Marlins had the nucleus of their championship-caliber team in place, with Mike Lowell at third, Luis Castillo at second, Alex Gonzalez at shortstop and Pierre. Miguel Cabrera had made his mark at age 20 in 2003, and in '04, his first full big league season, he was a rising star.

Surrounded by so much proven talent, the Marlins felt Choi had plenty of protection in the lineup to be productive. It just didn’t pan out that way.

“I remember being told this guy is going to lead the league in hitting,” McKeon said. “That he was the best hitter in the Minor Leagues. Come on, you're talking Double-A, Triple-A. This is the big leagues.”

Memorable first month
In 2002 at Triple-A, Choi crushed 26 homers and drove in 97 runs. And he added six homers in 18 games at Iowa in 2003 before reaching the big leagues.

In Spring Training with the Marlins, the towering first baseman bonded quickly with his new teammates and with the organization.

“Everybody accepted him and had fun with him,” McKeon said. “That helped his transition coming from South Korea to the United States. But he did play in the Minor Leagues with Chicago.”

In April, Choi responded with a breakout month. In 21 games, he had a slash line of .295/.419/.738 with nine home runs and 18 RBIs.

The big thing, too, is he started the season off with nine home runs the first month, and everybody expected big things,” McKeon said. “But sooner or later, as we said in Spring Training, 'Wait till the bell rings.'"

Quick rise, faster fall
After his scorching hot start, Choi started to slump. His production tailed off. Pitchers made adjustments, mainly serving him a steady diet of changeups and pitches on the outer part of the plate.

May turned into a woeful second month for Choi, who hit .221 with two home runs and 27 strikeouts in 26 games. He did show a penchant for drawing bases on balls and had a .344 on-base percentage for the month.

“It's a game of adjustments,” Hill said. “After the early success, the league caught up with him and made the adjustments. It was tough for him to make adjustments back to maintain that success.”

Choi did show some signs of recovering in June, hitting .292 for the month, but his power declined, with two home runs.

It was more of the same in July, where he again had two homers and hit .282.

The overall production wasn’t what the Marlins were looking for, and they had a viable option to play first base in Jeff Conine.

But the biggest hole on the roster was catcher. Mike Redmond and Ramon Castro were handling the role, but both were more suited to back up than start.

So on July 30, Choi was traded to the Dodgers, after he appeared in just 95 games with the Marlins.

The Marlins sent Choi, right-hander Brad Penny and lefty pitching prospect Bill Murphy to Los Angeles for catcher Paul Lo Duca, right fielder Juan Encarnacion and reliever Guillermo Mota.

Expectations were high for the Marlins in 2004. They were in a “win now” mode, and lacked patience when it came to affording young players time to develop. They also had a need at catcher because Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, a mainstay on the ’03 roster, signed as a free agent with the Tigers.

Choi became a piece to acquire Lo Duca, an established catcher who became an upgrade at the position.

“We wanted to add to the 'pen,” Hill said. “So it was a deal that we felt we were adding a premium offensive catcher, and a premium, leverage bullpen piece, so it made some sense.”

On the surface, Choi’s numbers over 95 games with the Marlins were respectable -- .270/.388/.495 with 15 home runs, 16 doubles, one triple and 40 RBIs. He struck out 78 times with 52 walks in 340 plate appearances. But much of his success was achieved in the first month.

“I remember when we told him he was traded,” Hill said. “It was down in Jack's office. He got emotional. Just seeing him. He was a great guy. Just seeing a young player, when they get traded, they get emotional. They don't truly understand the business side of the job. We gave him a big hug and wished him well.”

Trade aftermath
The downward trend Choi showed in his final two months with the Marlins carried over to the Los Angeles. In 31 games with the Dodgers in 2004, he hit a mere .161/.289/.242 with no home runs and six RBIs.

Choi was more productive in 2005, playing in 133 games with a slash line of .253/.336/.453 with 15 home runs and 42 RBIs.

After that season, Choi never wore a big league uniform again.

The Red Sox gave him a shot in 2006, as Choi played for Triple-A Pawtucket, trying to make his way back to the big leagues. He appeared in 66 games, and hit .207 with eight home runs and 27 RBIs.

Choi was in Spring Training with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2007, but didn’t make the Opening Day roster. Rather than go back to the Minor Leagues, he ended up signing with the Kia Tigers in the Korea Baseball Organization, where he played until 2015 (he missed the 2014 season).

That 2006 season, McKeon, who lives in North Carolina, caught up with Choi before a game between Durham and Pawtucket.

“I went over and talked with him when he was in Triple-A,” McKeon said. “He was the same guy. But all that home run power wasn't there.”