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Legend-in-the-making Choi a feel-good story

@dohyoungpark
October 27, 2020

When a 6-foot-1, 260-pound wedge of a man goes on national television and does the splits, people tend to start paying attention. Doubly so when he takes flight and shows off a rather impressive vertical on a leap at first base a matter of minutes later.

When a 6-foot-1, 260-pound wedge of a man goes on national television and does the splits, people tend to start paying attention. Doubly so when he takes flight and shows off a rather impressive vertical on a leap at first base a matter of minutes later.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 20 LAD 8, TB 3 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 21 TB 6, LAD 4 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 23 LAD 6, TB 2 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 24 TB 8, LAD 7 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 25 LAD 4, TB 2 Watch
Gm 6 Oct. 27 LAD 3, TB 1 Watch

Keep watching the broadcast, and you’ll notice one thing: Whenever the camera pans to Ji-Man Choi, he’s got a big ol’ smile planted on his face. Chances are, anyone in his zip code is wearing that contagious smile right along with him.

He bears a lot of love and pride on those broad shoulders and in that smile when he takes the field against right-handed starters for the Rays in this World Series. It’s the love of the hardworking mother that supported his move from South Korea to the United States before he finished high school. It’s the pride of a Tampa-St. Pete community that fills the Trop with chants of “Ji! Man! Choi! Ji! Man! Choi!” in one voice whenever he strides to the plate.

There’s also the pride of an entire nation across the Pacific watching Choi become the first Korean-born position player to appear in a World Series -- and the first of its sons to collect a base hit in the Fall Classic with his sixth-inning single off Joe Kelly in Game 2.

"I think it was my first time seeing a lot of articles written about me, so I was very flustered but very thankful at the same time, just seeing how many fans and how many people in Korea are just paying attention to this game and especially to me and writing good stuff about me,” Choi said through an interpreter. “It feels good."

It’s weird to think about that lack of coverage, because of, well, how fun he is to watch, as fans around the nation have discovered this October.

He’s a mammoth human being with the flexibility of a gymnast. He can’t help but make his teammates crack up at everything. He became a switch-hitter for a few days this summer just for the heck of it -- and homered from the right side. He does Pilates. For whatever reason, he absolutely owns Gerrit Cole.

And also, “Saturdays are for the Chois.”

“Yeah, Ji-Man Choi is the man,” Tyler Glasnow said. “I think a lot of it on TV, what you see is what you get.”

Here’s the scary part: Choi says he’s still holding back on us.

"I still haven't been able to show my personality due to the communication,” Choi said. “If I were to speak fully, I guess they'd be able to understand me and they'd be able to know who I am, but I still don't think they know who I am personally."

***

Consider for a moment the growing list of South Korean ballplayers to have made their mark on MLB. It started with Chan-Ho Park, still a legend to fans and young players alike in his home country. Among many others, there was Byung-Hyun Kim on that 2001 D-backs championship club, Hee-Seop Choi for a few years, and, more recently, the likes of Shin-Soo Choo, Hyun Jin Ryu, Jung Ho Kang, Seunghwan Oh and Kwang Hyun Kim.

Ji-Man Choi is actually part of a relative minority there.

Due to the strength and organization of the amateur baseball scene in Korea, there’s less of an incentive for players to sign young with MLB teams than for players in Latin America. Many Korean youngsters in the tight-knit baseball community there enjoy careers playing alongside their friends and childhood heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization. Most successful Korean professionals become KBO studs first, amassing large followings before trying their luck in MLB.

But Choi, like Choo and Cha Seung Baek before him, chose to forego the KBO pipeline for the Minor League lifestyle in the Seattle organization, ushered over to the States by longtime international scout Ted Heid and scouts Pat Kelly and Jamey Storveck, who found an advanced bat and team leader with some defensive questions at a high school in the northwestern port city of Incheon.

"At first, my goal wasn't to be in the Major Leagues,” Choi said. “My goal was to be the best player I could be. The opportunity came for me to go to the States, and I didn't think I would have this opportunity again, so I took it at a young age. Playing in the Minor Leagues helped me grow as a young player. A couple years into it, I kind of got the hope that I can hopefully play in the Majors."

Despite being away from their home countries, young Latin American players at least have other Spanish speakers their age to bond with in their rise up the Minors. That’s not the case with Korean prospects like Choi, making for a tougher transition to a new country and career.

Still, that fun-loving personality that makes him such a hit in the Rays’ clubhouse was there in Choi’s teenage days, too.

"I just remember him as a young 19-year-old in Peoria,” Heid said. “TV cameras zoom in on him and I can see his facial features and that twinkle in his eye. I'm like, 'I can only imagine what's going through his mind right now.'"

Heid jokes that he sometimes wishes he’d seen a little less of that mischievous mind. It does make for some tremendous stories, though.

Choi still uses an interpreter in his interactions with the English-speaking media, but don’t be fooled, Hunter Renfroe says. Choi’s English skills are spot-on, even if Choi himself doesn’t think so. Heid confirms that Choi has always been quick on the uptake with language -- and eager to use that for nefarious means.

Heid remembers with a hearty laugh that one of Choi’s favorite clubhouse pastimes was to translate phrases from Korean to Spanish; Korean to Portuguese; and vice versa.

“He has a knack for learning languages, but only the languages that he wants to learn and the phrases that he wants to learn,” Heid said. “So he came up with some pretty hilarious translations of his own.

“He would, with a straight face, tell his young teammates that this was what the word in Korean was for this and that. Totally making up bad words and things like that.”

Choi and his Latin American teammates were regulars in the Korean barbecue scene around Peoria when he played in the Arizona League in 2010. You can see where this is going, right?

“All of the Latin guys love Korean barbecue and things like that, so they'd go to a restaurant and they'd drop their Korean on them, and the people would go, 'You shouldn't be saying that!'” Heid remembers with a hearty laugh. “The 6-foot-4 Dominican outfielder saying these words in Korean that are, like, not what this means.”

Baseball is a grind at its best in the midst of a 162-game season. That becomes all the more overwhelming in a pandemic-laded, bubble-enclosed season like this one. Guys like Choi bring their teammates together, and the Rays are all effusive in their praise for that personality that has been a fixture of clubhouses from those early days as a teenager in Arizona.

“He is a big part of our clubhouse and the energy that he brings on a daily basis,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Why do fans love him? First and foremost, because he's a good player, and second, I think you can watch him play. He really enjoys being out there. There's a lot of laughs. People kind of flock to that type of personality.”

"I think Cash deserves a medal, keeping him in line and not laughing at anything and everything that Ji-Man does,” Heid said.

Choi did say somewhat wistfully that he wonders if his clubhouse lifestyle would be more fun if he could fully communicate himself in English.

“He’s always a blast to have in the clubhouse, always making wise jokes,” Renfroe said. “I love how he thinks that he can’t speak English. He speaks English fluently.”

Take that Rookie League anecdote as a warning, though. Perhaps Renfroe and his teammates don’t know what they’re in for -- or what a Choi with fully weaponized language skills might have been holding back. They might not be able to handle him.

"If I told you now, it wouldn't be fun,” Choi said enigmatically.

***

It looked like 2015 should have been Choi’s year to make his mark with the Mariners. He was on the 40-man roster and in the thick of the Major League roster battle. Then, in the ninth inning of Seattle’s Cactus League opener on March 4, he leaped for an errant throw, landed wrong, and suffered a fractured fibula. He was designated for assignment one day later and outrighted off the 40-man.

Just another setback. One year earlier, he had incurred a 50-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance.

Once on the cusp of his big league debut, he played only 97 games in 2014 and '15 and became a Minor League free agent. He bounced around between the Angels, Yankees and Brewers and finally got some cups of coffee in the Majors -- but nothing significant, and nothing all too successful.

Then, the Rays acquired him on June 10, 2018, and the fan favorite began taking shape ahead of a breakout ’19 in which he hit 19 homers with an .822 OPS.

"I just thought about a lot of the difficult times I had in the Minor Leagues, just reflecting back on that time, it helps me relax, helps bring the fun side of me,” Choi said. “I think all of the difficult time throughout the Minor Leagues helped me become who I am today, and I think finding the right spot and the right coaching staff helped me develop as the player I am today."

As tough as those years were, Choi’s relentless confidence in himself must never have wavered. There’s an anecdote for that, too, from 2010, when Choi hit .378/.459/.541 en route to being named Arizona League MVP in his first professional season.

“About halfway through that first summer, he pulls me aside and says, 'You know what? I need more money from the Mariners,’” Heid said. “He says that to me in English. He says, 'You signed me for too little. I'm much better. You need to get me some more money.' With a straight face.”

Heid has been in professional baseball for nearly three decades. He’d never seen anything like that before -- and still hasn’t seen it again.

“Then, for the next two weeks, every time I saw him, he would go, 'More money? More money?'” Heid said.

To be clear, Heid saw the work ethic and the relentlessness to back up such an audacious request. He remembers Choi being the leader of his team in high school despite not being one of the older players -- and there’s something to be said for that in Korean society, so demarcated by age and hierarchy. He also remembers Mariners coaches having to chastise Choi to stop showing up to the complex so early for workouts and having to kick him out of the cages when the young prospect wanted to keep working.

“Really, really some of my prouder moments watching him and all of the obstacles that he's overcome,” Heid said. “One, the devastating injury in Spring Training, to him coming back and just not saying quit as he was released, non-roster, to have him find a way to be an integral part of the Rays right now. I'm very, very proud of him."

That’s probably how Choi, originally signed as a catcher with defensive questions elsewhere on the field, has become one of the Rays’ more sure-handed defenders in an airtight infield. And why it’s all the more impressive that, considering all of those challenges in his Minor League career, having been an ocean away from home since his teenage years, he still wears that big smile on his face and coaxes it out of his teammates, too.

“He's been through a lot in his career,” Cash said. “Different organizations, probably being taught multiple things about hitting or defense or whatever, and I think by the time we acquired him, he had learned on his own time that the best version of himself was to be himself.”

That smile isn’t going anywhere -- certainly not now that he’s at the peak of his sport. At last.

“I think they're going to have to drag the uniform off of him,” Heid said. “He will play until somebody absolutely tells him no."

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.