A Closer Look at Top Prospect Shin-Soo Choo

Many things can change over the course of six months. In terms of minor league baseball, you might find yourself improving your plate awareness or mastering a new pitch with the help of your coaches and teammates. In life, you might mature and grow as a person by learning from your real-life experiences. San Antonio Missions outfielder Shin-Soo Choo experienced both of these maturation processes throughout this up-and-down season.

What some – including this reporter at times – tend to forget is that those in minor league baseball can range in age from 17 on up. Yes, these are young men with blossoming athletic abilities, but these are also youngmen that find themselves taking the path less traveled in terms of simply growing up.

Choo is a very reserved man when a digital recorder or pen and paper are nearby to record his thoughts, but appearances are many times deceiving. Off-stage – so to speak – Choo is simply one of the guys; joking around, acting silly and displaying emotions that run as hot and cold as the sink in your kitchen.

Inevitably, an American reporter or opposing team broadcaster will pose the question to those that sit in the press box at The Wolff nightly about Choo's ability to speak English, which goes without saying is not his first tongue. The answer is always the same.

"It's better than he gives himself credit for," someone will invariably say.

For anybody attempting to speak in a foreign language, a reservation is necessary so as not to fumble your words and put across the wrong thoughts. Speaking with Choo is exactly the same.

During his Houston visit at the MLB Futures Game, a Korean crew of four stood alongside me as the doors to Minute Maid Park opened. As Choo walked in left field admiring the beauty of the ballpark, talking with his one-game teammates and explaining his love of wearing the number 17 as opposed to his Missions 51, the Korean crew – boom mic and digital video camera in hand – interviewed the 22-year-old Choo for use in a package about the MLB All-Star Game.

Just this week, I saw a preview copy of the feature and watched Choo answer at length the questions posed to him – that's one of the benefits of asking your question in his native tongue.

Invariably, Choo is mentioned in the same sentence as his predecessors from the Pacific Rim nation such as Los Angeles Dodgers IF Hee-Seop Choi, Texas Rangers RHP Chan Ho Park – a former San Antonio Mission – and even recent Mariners callup and close friend, RHP Cha Seung Baek. But even as Choo puts it, he still doesn't receive a lot of ink from the Korean media.

Not yet, at least.

"I don't get a lot of interviews," said Choo. "Guys like Choi and Park are major leaguers, I'm just a minor-leaguer."

Playing Double-A baseball is about learning from your mistakes and developing yourself into a better overall player; in the early part of the 2004 campaign, it was not out of the ordinary for Choo to ask the team's broadcasters or reporters what his batting average was at or how he was doing compared to others that had played before.

During an interview for this feature, Choo talked about his change in tune.

"I'm not thinking about (my) numbers or anything like that," said the four-year pro. "I just want this team to win; I want to win a championship here.

"Before, I would think it was easy (to win), then we had the bad first half and in the second we've been one game up, one game behind," said Choo. "(Manager Dave Brundage) told us that we win as a team and lose as a team. Some winning teams will have guys hitting .280 and some losing teams can have guys hitting .300 and it's better to be on a winning team."

Choo was voted this week to the Texas League's Post-Season All-Star squad after improving his statistics across the board over the second half of the season. Since the All-Star break, Choo has hit.335/.479/.412, pounded eight of his 14 home runs, drawn 31 of his 55 walks and swiped 28 of his 39 bases.

"Early on, I'd take a lot of pitches," said Choo. "I'd always want the ball to be right down the plate. In the Texas League, pitchers will throw any pitch in any count. Now, if it's a good pitch, I'm going to try to hit it.

"The last three years, I was nervous; I got caught stealing a lot more. Now, I'm watching pitchers closer. I look at their gloves, their legs and knees and their kick to find out when they're going home."

The outfielder with the ever-changing hair color is already pegged for a roster spot with the Peoria Javelinas, one of the teams playing in the Arizona Fall League. This will be Choo's first AFL appearance, and he's looking forward to continuing his work.

"I just expect it to be the same (as here)," said Choo. "You get to see guys that are better than you and you find out why and make yourself better."

Choo will be joined on the Javelinas by Missions pitchers Jared Thomas and Chris Buglovsky, SS Michael Morse and former Missions/current Tacoma Rainier 3B Greg Dobbs.

Barring unforeseen events, Choo is most likely destined for a Tacoma Rainiers uniform and the increased talent levels of the Pacific Coast League in 2005.

Choo is still a shy guy once the little red light turns on; he's still going to get down on himself with a strikeout on a 3-for-4 night, and he'll still make his point known to an umpire, but he's showing maturity as a player and a person. If the 2004 season is any indication, the only question Mariners fans will ask about the young man from Pusan, South Korea will be whether he'll be wearing his lucky No. 17 the first day he suits up at Safeco Field.

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