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Rangers' Choo Shin-soo proud to see more S. Koreans in majors

All Headlines 09:04 February 24, 2016

SURPRISE, Arizona, Feb. 23 (Yonhap) -- It wasn't all that long ago that Choo Shin-soo, a veteran entering his ninth full season in the majors, was the only South Korean on baseball's ultimate stage.

Things have changed dramatically over the past few years. And in 2016, aside from the Texas Rangers' outfielder, there could be as many as seven other South Koreans on big league rosters at the start of the season.

As the Rangers' position players reported to spring training here in Arizona on Tuesday, Choo said he was proud to see so many of his compatriots at work.

"I have high expectations (of those players)," Choo said. "I don't know if there will ever come a time again when six to seven South Koreans will play in the majors all in the same season. I hope many more Korean players will make it to the big leagues."

Choo made his major league debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2005, and has been a full-time player since appearing in 94 games for the Cleveland Indians in 2008. This will be his third season as a Ranger.

Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin joined the majors in 2013, followed by Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kang Jung-ho last year. This past offseason, three more South Korean players signed major league deals -- Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins, Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles and Oh Seung-hwan of the St. Louis Cardinals -- while a fourth player, Lee Dae-ho, reached a minor league deal with the Mariners. A long-time minor league prospect, Choi Ji-man, was selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the Rule 5 Draft, and the Angels must keep him on their active roster or ship him back to his former club, the Orioles, for cash.

Choo, 33, reserves a special place in his heart for Lee Dae-ho, his childhood friend from Busan, a southeastern port city. The two played on the same elementary school team, and Choo famously prodded the young Dae-ho to start playing baseball with him.

Despite his strong credentials in both the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Lee settled for a minor league deal with the Mariners. If the 2015 Japan Series MVP makes a big league roster, he will earn US$4 million. Otherwise, he will be put on a minor-league pay scale.

Choo, who himself toiled for years in the minors out of high school, said Lee has what it takes to succeed in the majors.

"Dae-ho is one of the very few that I see as a great baseball player," Choo said. "He turned down a lucrative offer in Japan (from his former club, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) to challenge himself in the United States, and he should be commended for that. And I think he has the abilities to do well in the majors."

Choo, an early riser who showed up at 5 a.m. to put in work, said he is in great shape.

"I've been working hard all winter, and I am almost at about the same weight as I was at the end of last year," he said. "I am excited (about the new season)."

As one of the major surprises in the second half last season, the Rangers snatched the American League West title at 88-74. They took the first two games on the road against the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Division Series, before dropping the next three in a row to crash out of the postseason.

Choo said it was "a disappointing finish" to the season, but the experience of having been to the postseason alone has hardened him for another run in 2016.

"We brought in some new players, and I have higher expectations about this season than the last," he said. "Our ace, Yu Darvish, will return to the rotation (after missing all last season with an elbow injury). It'd be great if everyone started the season healthy."

Choo himself had a roller coaster of a season. He batted a woeful .096 in April but was one of the majors' best hitters in the second half, with a robust .343/.455/.560 line with 11 homers and 44 RBIs in 69 games. He was named the AL Player of the Month for September, after hitting .387 over his final 32 games and helping the Rangers to a 20-12 record in that stretch.

Choo, who also hit for the cycle for the first time in his career in 2015, closed the season with a .276/.375/.463 line, along with 22 home runs, 82 RBIs and 94 runs scored, closer to his career norms than the injury-plagued 2014 season.

"Many people say baseball is a microcosm of life," Choo mused. "You go through some good times and bad times. Looking back on last year, I realize it's never over until it's over in baseball."


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