Shin-Soo Choo looked every bit the American as he walked through Summit Mall in suburban Akron in jeans and a leather jacket Sunday afternoon.
And if not for the South Korean National Team’s 3-1 victory over Taiwan in the finals of the Asian Games last fall, Choo might have been forced to become a certified American, that is, a U.S. citizen, to circumvent two years of service in the South Korean Army.
Not that Choo objects in principle to his country’s policy of mandatory military service. He was concerned about a two-year interruption in his career with the Indians, a problem that vanished when the South Korean government granted exemptions to every player on the national team.
Choo caught the fly ball that ended the game against Taiwan and instantly realized the hard decisions that he might have faced had disappeared.
“In the first three or four seconds after I caught the last out, it suddenly felt like a dream,” he said. “I didn’t have to think about the situation anymore, like I did for several years.”
In the final game of the tournament, Choo singled twice, driving in two runs to put an exclamation point on a year when he became the consensus choice as the Tribe’s best all-around player.
Choo led the club in virtually every important offensive category, becoming the first Cleveland player to hit .300 with at least 20 home runs and 20 steals two seasons in a row. He finished fourth in the American League with a .401 on-base percentage, ranked first in outfield assists with 14, eighth in walks with 83, sixth in home batting average with a .335 mark and ninth in OPS with an .885 figure.
With achievement comes acclaim. A large crowd waited to greet the Indians’ contingent at Summit Mall, most fans targeting Choo, manager Manny Acta and former manager Mike Hargrove, who led the team to several Central Division championships and two World Series appearances.
The current team has a long way to go to reach that level, yet Choo has become a star in northeast Ohio and especially in South Korea.
Choo’s exploits for the Tribe can be seen on South Korean television, but his fan base expanded exponentially playing for the National Team.
“It was crazy after we won the Asian Games,” Choo said. “Everybody watches the national team.”
But a harder reality was just over the horizon. There was the matter of Choo’s contract. For the first time in his career, Choo was eligible for arbitration.
That’s a good thing and a bad thing for a player. Arbitration gave Choo bargaining power he had never had before, but it left him open for implied criticism by his employer if he actually went to a hearing.
Choo’s agent, Scott Boras, didn’t want that to happen, despite his reputation as a negotiator who tries to squeeze the last dollar out of teams.
“I asked him if I should go, and he said no,” Choo said. “A lot of players say Scott doesn’t listen (to clients), but that’s not true. He talked to me all the time.
“I never called him and asked how things were going. He always called me, and I trusted him to take care of it (negotiations). He asked me a lot whether I liked this or that. He said you have the choice.”
In the end, Choo signed a one-year contract for almost $4 million, a $3.5 million raise from his 2010 salary.
Choo said there wasn’t much talk about a long-term deal, though that would have been preferable to the Indians, at the right price.
“We talked about a multiyear deal a little bit,” Choo said. “(Scott) will talk about it with them again.”
Choo has just begun to make major dollars, but he does not want his salary to be what drives him.
“Four million dollars is a lot,” he said. “If you make $4 million, your life is good. Not many people make that much. A lot of guys play for money. I play for my family and my country.”
Notes: The Indians might still add a veteran starting pitcher before training camp opens in mid-February. . . . Matt LaPorta lost several pounds over the winter, dropping to about 215. . . . The latest infield configuration puts Jason Donald at third and Jayson Nix at second. Columbus third baseman Jared Goedert also will get a look.
I was a bit WTF when reading this. My favorite Korean iceskater never went/had to go to the army. So why did he have to go at first?