ANAHEIM -- Angels first baseman Ji-Man Choi first met Shin-Soo Choo in 2010, when Choo was well into his career as an established outfielder and Choi was merely a teenager, in his first professional season in the U.S. and still trying to figure out who he was, what he was
ANAHEIM -- Angels first baseman Ji-Man Choi first met Shin-Soo Choo in 2010, when Choo was well into his career as an established outfielder and Choi was merely a teenager, in his first professional season in the U.S. and still trying to figure out who he was, what he was going to be.
"I can't wait to play with you in the Major Leagues," Choi told Choo then, and every other time they met over the next five years.
Choi smiled at the thought on Friday afternoon, moments before his first Major League start came against the Rangers team that Choo now plays for.
"I'm just happy that it actually came true," Choi, speaking through an interpreter, said. "Every year that we would meet, I would talk to him about playing with him in the Major Leagues, and now, here I am."
Choi, like every baseball-loving kid from South Korea, grew up wanting to be like Choo. And when the Mariners signed Choi as an 18-year-old, Choo became much more than an idol -- he became a guide.
Many of the Major League players who hail from South Korea played in their nation's professional league before transitioning to the U.S., which means they didn't have to spend much time grinding through the Minor Leagues.
Choo and Choi, both signed out of high school, had far more difficult paths.
"Definitely," Choo said. "Everything is different. The language is different, people look different, the culture is different. Baseball is the same, but we don't play baseball 24 hours [a day]. It's only a few hours out of the day, and then you're on your own and everything is different from Korea. It's not easy to do. That's why I tried to help him. I know how difficult it is to start off in the Minor Leagues."
Choo told Choi to believe in himself but also to make sure he remained persistent with his routine. Korean baseball can be a lot more authoritarian, with coaches constantly on players about how and when to work out. It's nearly the opposite in the Minors.
"Nobody says to you to do this or to go do something," Choo said. "You have to find your own schedule yourself; you have to work hard yourself. If you have a question, you have to ask the coach, the manager. And if you don't speak, they never tell you. I learned that in the Minor Leagues."
Choi was the Mariners' Offensive Player of the Year in that first pro season six years ago. He posted a .302/.404/.481 slash line in his Minor League career, but he also faced some hurdles along the way. There was the strained back muscle that knocked him out all of 2011, the 50-game suspension he was handed after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance in 2014 and the broken leg that limited him to 23 games in 2015.
But Choi had Choo to lean on.
"I always have," Choi, the first Angels player to hail from Korea, said when asked if he looks up to Choo. "Most of the players from Korea do, too. Choo is a person that came up through the Minors and went to the Majors. I went through the same process, so I have to look at Choo as a role model."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez and listen to his podcast.