Go ahead: Name five true five-tool players in the game today. The least likely of that group? That's easy
Every so often, Shin-Soo Choo thinks about the ones who didn't make it. There were hundreds just like him at South Korea's Pusan High School, a baseball academy run like a boot camp: There were 5 a.m. wake-up calls, morning practices, afternoon practices, grueling hours in the weight room at night. The boys lived on campus and saw their families on Sundays. "We didn't study. All we did was play baseball, think baseball, nothing but baseball," says Choo. "The problem is, if you don't make it in baseball, what do you do?"
Choo—the Indians' rightfielder and the best player in the majors that no one is talking about—is one of the few who has made it. (He knows of only one high school classmate who is playing professionally, in Korea.) At 28, Choo is the most accomplished position player to hail from his baseball-crazed nation. But he is more than a novelty act: He has also emerged as one of the few true five-tool talents in the major leagues, a star in the making who plays under a cloak of anonymity for a small-market, downtrodden franchise.
But before he could make his remarkable transformation from a pitching phenom—he was, at 18, "the best amateur pitcher in the world," insists Mariners Pacific Rim operations director Ted Heid—to a dazzling outfielder with a perfect swing; before he could become a national phenomenon in Korea ("He's as big as the most popular movie star," says Park Kwang-min, a baseball writer for Korean media company OSEN who visits the U.S. several times a season cover the expatriate), Choo had to do what few ballplayers from his homeland have dared to try: make it in the U.S. "I had to have a big, big dream," he says. "I could have stayed in Korea like everyone else, but I wanted to play the best baseball in the world. No one else wanted to come. They were scared. I wanted to come."
April 24, 2011
Says Heid, "Koreans don't need to come to the U.S. to prove anything. The professional league there is very competitive; the players are well-paid. There's a lot of national pride. To be willing to risk everything to come to the U.S.? It takes a very special person."
NO ONE believed the boy would make it in America, not even his own parents, who accompanied him to the U.S. after he signed with the Mariners out of high school, in 2000. Yes, the $1.3 million signing bonus was big for his family, but the risks were enormous: If their son failed in the U.S., Choo says, he would be banned for two years from playing baseball in Korea, where he had been bound for stardom. The boy's father, So-Mien, had always been Choo's biggest supporter. When U.S. scouts came to Pusan to see his son, So-Mien borrowed a car to drive them around; when they couldn't all fit, he gave the scouts the car and walked several miles by himself. But on Choo's first day with the Mariners in '01, So-Mien looked around at the other ballplayers in the instructional league in Arizona, saw how much bigger they were than his 5'11", 175-pound son, and thought to himself, The boy has no chance.
"That first day, it was 120 degrees," Choo says. "My mom kept saying, 'It's so hot.' She said, 'You made a mistake. Come home with us.' And I told her, 'Don't say that. Respect my choice. I can make it here.'"
When Seattle signed him, Choo had played some outfield but was mainly a pitcher with a 97-mph fastball and, says Heid, "two above-average secondary pitches." Beginning with Chan Ho Park, who became the first South Korean--born major leaguer when he broke in as a reliever with the Dodgers in 1994, a handful of pitchers from Choo's homeland had found mixed success in the U.S. But given the history of injuries among Korean pitchers—they had often been overworked from a young age—and Choo's undersized frame, the Mariners questioned whether his arm would hold up. One day in the spring of 2001 Choo had just finished a bullpen session when a minor league pitching coach told him to grab a bat and join the position players. "I said, 'What? I can't hit,'" he recalls.
That wasn't all that made a move off the mound risky: At that point there had never been a South Korean position player in the majors. "The question was longevity," says Heid. "[Eventually] his tools as an outfielder really outweighed everything else."
Choo never pitched again. He hit .311 in 54 games in rookie ball and Class A in 2001, and by '04 he was a highly rated outfield prospect at Triple A Tacoma. Before the '06 trading deadline Seattle dealt him to Cleveland for first baseman Ben Broussard. Two days after the trade, in his debut with the Indians, Choo launched a home run in his third at bat, off Seattle's Felix Hernandez. Cleveland beat Choo's former team 1--0. "We were watching in Tacoma," says his former teammate in the Mariners' organization, Eddie Menchaca, now a manager at Class A Clinton. "The clubhouse erupted, everyone started chanting 'Choo! Choo! Choo!'"
A man appeared in the Tacoma clubhouse to see what the commotion was about. It was then Mariners G.M. Bill Bavasi, visiting from Seattle. It was quickly becoming apparent that he had just gifted the Indians their next star.
The "five-tool player" tag gets thrown around like bubblegum wrappers in a bullpen. A ballplayer with the ability to hit for average and power, who possesses speed, an excellent glove and a howitzer of an arm is in reality as rare as the pitcher who can throw triple-digit fastballs with precision. "A-Rod used to be one," says Indians closer Chris Perez. "Cargo [Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez] is one. There may only be three or four real five-tool guys in the game, and Choo is definitely one."
According to the advanced metric Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which measures the number of victories a player contributes above or below an average player, during the last two seasons in the American League only Carl Crawford was a more valuable outfielder than Choo, who hit .300 in 2010 with a .401 on-base percentage, 22 home runs and 22 steals. (Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez is the only other player to hit .300 with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in each of the last two seasons.) Even when Choo is slumping at the plate, as he was to begin this season (through Sunday he was hitting .214 with two home runs, six RBIs and a .286 on-base percentage), Choo is a difference maker with his baserunning and defense. No one on the Indians has seen Choo pitch (despite having Tommy John surgery in 2007, he insists he can still hit 94 on the radar gun), but he showcases his arm almost every game. "It's not just how strong it is, it's also always on the money," says Perez. In the fourth game of the season Choo gunned down J.D. Drew at home plate in a 3--1 win over the Red Sox. "Boston didn't get the scouting report," says Perez. "You don't run on him."
Choo's swing is also gaining a reputation for being "one of the best, one of the prettiest, in the game," says Indians hitting coach Jon Nunnally. On his first day in camp this spring, outfielder Travis Buck, who signed as a free agent during the winter, was approaching the batting cages when he heard a gunshotlike noise—"the sound of a special ballplayer," says Indians team president Mark Shapiro. Buck looked into the cages and saw Choo taking cuts. He stood and watched Choo's swing—"no wasted motion, no loopiness, a direct, straight path downward to the ball, almost like chopping wood," says Buck. Afterward he walked up to Nunnally and said, "I want to hit exactly like that."
This spring Buck revamped his swing to model it after Choo's. "We always say, when someone's struggling, 'Just watch Choo,'" says catcher Lou Marson. "Just do what he does."
With a swing that Buck says creates "ridiculous backspin," Choo generates unexpected power from his compact build, which now carries 205 pounds. "If you watch him take batting practice and the rounds where he's really letting it lose, you see that he has as much raw power as anyone on our team," says Cleveland G.M. Chris Antonetti. As a minor leaguer in Tacoma, he was just the second player to hit a home run over the 29-foot centerfield wall, 425 feet from home plate, in Cheney Stadium. Last September, against the Royals, Choo hit three home runs in one game: the first to right center, the second (a grand slam) to left center and the third to right center. Says Nunnally, "He's going to hit 30-plus home runs, maybe more, one of these years."
Choo is powered by a work ethic that comes from his father, a former boxer and track athlete who always told him, "In sports, nobody cares about who finishes second." Says Shapiro, "Chris [Antonetti] and I stay on East Coast time during spring training [in Arizona], so we're in the weight room at 5 a.m., and he's the only player there, riding the bike before the full workout and the full spring training day."
Choo's daily routine includes hundreds of fingertip push-ups to strengthen his wrists and hands, dozens of swings off a tee, as well as a bowl of piping hot noodle soup, which he has after pregame BP sessions. Every night at home he takes 150 swings with a bat just before he goes to sleep. "I get home, I don't want to think about baseball. He gets home, and all he's thinking about is baseball," says his former teammate and roommate at Tacoma, Rich Dorman, now the pitching coach at Clinton. "He's not thinking about 20-20 anymore. He's not even thinking about 30-30. He wants 40-40. That's how driven he is."
Whether Choo would even be wearing an Indians uniform this season was somewhat in question after his breakout 2010 season. Men in Korea must serve two years of military service before their 30th birthday, and Choo was facing the possibility of having to return home to fulfill his obligation. Though the Indians always believed their best player would come back—as a last resort, he could have applied for U.S. citizenship—the issue weighed heavily on him. He knew there was only one dignified way out: Since the South Korean government typically grants military exemptions to athletes who win gold medals in international competitions, Choo could avoid service by leading his country to the title at the Asian Games in November.
Choo carried Korea to gold, hitting .571 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in the five-game tournament, which culminated with a 9--3 win over Taiwan in the championship game. His performance launched him to new heights of celebrity in his home country. When he returned to Korea this off-season, Choo appeared in a photo shoot with the nation's hottest singer, Son Dam-bi. He hung out with one of the country's biggest film stars, Sol Kyung-gu. "He's now bigger than [Olympic gold medalist figure skater] Kim Yu-na and [Manchester United star] Park Ji-sung," says the writer Park Kwang-min. "The Yankees were always the most popular team in Korea. Now you can't walk down the street without seeing someone in an Indians hat or shirt. The Indians are Number 1 in Korea."
Which means fans in Korea are happy these days: Cleveland, expected to finish near the bottom of the AL Central, won 11 of its first 15 games and was in first place through Sunday. Whether he homers or goes 0 for 4, Choo is the top story in Korean newspapers and on sports websites every day the Indians play. Although he is a national hero, others from Korea have not followed in his footsteps. Only one other Korean-born position player has appeared in the majors (first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, who played for the Cubs, Marlins and Dodgers from 2002 to '05), and Choo is the only active Korean-born player in the big leagues. "His success might create a slow trickle of players," says Heid. "But Choo still has a lot to prove. If he puts up the numbers for eight, 10 seasons, then we'll be talking about him making a big impact."
Choo has no doubt that some of his countrymen could succeed in the majors as he has. "Baseball is baseball—it's not that different," he says. "Many guys can play here. But it is not easy to come. Many people said I made a mistake when I came." He adds, "Baseball is all I know. I've played it all my life. Guys here talk about what they want to do if they don't play baseball—they can do a lot of different things. But I don't have anything else I can do." He looks around the clubhouse, which has become his home, and says, "Hopefully, I'll be here a long, long time."
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"I WANTED TO PLAY THE BEST BASEBALL IN THE WORLD," SAYS CHOO. "NO ONE ELSE [FROM KOREA] WANTED TO COME. THEY WERE SCARED. I WANTED TO COME."