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(Yonhap Feature) Ex-minor league pitcher dedicated to putting careers on right track

All Headlines 09:00 September 19, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

INCHEON, Sept. 19 (Yonhap) -- Yu Jae-yu was just like any other struggling teenager hoping to make it in professional baseball, when he stumbled upon Choi's Elite Baseball Academy in Incheon, west of Seoul, earlier this year. The career for the 19-year-old -- drafted in the first round by the LG Twins in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) last year -- was going nowhere, held back by nagging elbow and shoulder pains.

And he was willing to stake his baseball life on the practice facility standing in the middle of nowhere, housed in a warehouse just off a highway leading to Incheon International Airport.

With the help of Choi Eun-chul, a former minor league pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles' system who founded the facility a year ago, Yu adopted a new delivery that allowed him to pitch pain-free. His fastball was sitting around 78 to 81 mph at first, and he was throwing 88 mph by the summer.

"I also started throwing my breaking balls better with my new delivery," Yu told Yonhap News Agency during a break from his practice on Sept. 5. "This experience has changed my life."

Baseball pitcher Yu Jae-you (R) prepares to make a pitch as his private coach Choi Eun-chul (C) and fellow pitcher Han Seung-ji look on at Choi's Elite Baseball Academy in Incheon on Sept. 5, 2016. (Yonhap)

The 32-year-old first entered the world of scouting in 2012 after leaving competitive baseball. He stayed with the Baltimore Orioles organization to do the scouting work, having earlier pitched for them in the minors but decided some two years later that chasing high school prospects for a living wasn't his calling.

Choi turned to coaching -- more specifically, private coaching tailor-made to different pitchers' needs, whether they're struggling young pros or budding amateurs hoping to take the next step. Choi had done some coaching in rookie ball in the Orioles' system, but he was ready to embark on a whole new adventure.

"After quitting as a scout, I decided to do something for Korean baseball," Choi said. "I wanted to set up a baseball academy and teach pros and young players alike."

Thanks to his work at CEBA, Yu made his KBO debut this summer, a year after getting drafted in the first round by the LG Twins. Though his numbers leave much to be desired -- he has a 0-1 record with a 13.50 ERA in 6 2/3 innings across seven appearances -- Yu is still pleased with his progress this year.

Yu has soaked up Choi's advice and made the most of the coach's undivided attention, the kind of which he is unlikely to receive as a rookie out of high school on a big club with more than 20 veterans. If the pro coaches look at the forest, Choi is here to see the trees and even the leaves, as Yu tells it.

"Coaches in the KBO will look at the big picture, but they won't pay such close attention to mechanics," the pitcher said. "Here, we work on every minute detail."

Choi insisted he's not working any magic, but he certainly has found his niche as a private tutor for struggling pitchers.

To ensure his students get the most out of his coaching, Choi doesn't take on more than four pitchers at a time. He has hired professional trainers to help with the pitchers' workout programs -- a small gym is set up in one corner of the facility, complete with weights and medicine balls.

Some professional managers and pitching coaches are infamous for running their pitchers into the ground, but Choi emphasizes quality over quantity. Most professionals who train with him don't work out for more than 2 1/2 hours a day because, as Choi says it, "There's not much more you can do after that." Rest, he added, is part of the routine.

This photo taken on Sept. 5, 2016, shows the entrance to Choi's Elite Baseball Academy in Incheon. (Yonhap)

His students have included pitchers who simply couldn't throw anywhere near their target -- either due to mental blocks or physical issues -- and those who barely threw over 75 mph, a speed considered just fast enough for recreational leagues.

The first thing Choi does when he sees a pitcher is to film him. Choi carries a second mobile phone just for recording purposes and it contains thousands of clips. He keeps recording pitchers to monitor their progress and to find mechanical flaws that need fixes.

According to Choi, some come in with bad habits that leave them vulnerable to shoulder or elbow injuries. Others with some injury history have inadvertently developed bad habits in their search for the arm angles or release points that allow them to pitch pain-free.

Choi said his job is to make sure the pitchers don't get hurt or don't feel pain when they throw, but it's up to them to maintain their form once they're fixed.

"I see myself as a dentist who replaces rotten teeth with implants," Choi said with a smile. "My job is to give them new teeth, but it's up to them not to eat chocolates and sweets after they leave the clinic."

And unlike actual dentists, Choi even offers a two-week money back guarantee to his students. If they aren't happy with Choi's work after 14 days, they get a 100 percent refund.

It's a sign of Choi's confidence in his coaching ability, and with more than a slight hint of pride, he said no one has yet to ask him for a refund.

Renowned American pitching guru Tom House has openly worked with the likes of Randy Johnson and Mark Prior among other major league pitchers, but Choi's students in the KBO keep their private workouts with Choi just that -- private. They usually come in on Mondays, the league's usual off day, to get their work in without their clubs' knowledge, so as not to risk upsetting coaches on their own clubs who may take offense to outsiders working with their assets.

One such student is Han Seung-ji, a second-round draft pick by the KT Wiz last year. He has yet to make his KBO debut, and instead of playing out of the Wiz's home in Suwon, some 45 kilometers south of Seoul, Han is based in Iksan, North Jeolla Province, the Wiz's minor league home some 250 kilometers south of the capital.

Despite long weekly trips, Han said he sees the time and the money as good investments for his future.

"When I got to spring training this year, nothing worked," the 19-year-old said. "And I decided I'd give (CEBA) a try. It can be hard to be traveling so much every week, but it's been worth it."

Baseball coach Choi Eun-chul (third from R) poses with his students at Choi's Elite Baseball Academy in Incheon in this undated photo provided by Choi. (Yonhap)

Han, who's still looking to make his professional debut, was throwing his fastball at 84 mph in February, but he can now touch 89. But as much as his physical improvement, Han said he's also pleased with the way he's developed a more optimistic outlook on his career.

In the case of Yu and Han, Choi credits their strong fundamentals with allowing them to make relatively quick improvements.

"With some pros, all it takes is a few minutes to tweak things here and there, and they'll soon start throwing much faster," Choi said. "Pitching coaches with pro clubs should be able to fix those issues, but for some reason, they can't always do it."

Choi said he will set up a more intensive training program for pros during the upcoming offseason. He said he's only given Yu and Han some tips, and he's prepared to put in even more work with his future students.

And Choi hopes that the young pitchers won't see CEBA as an end, but a beginning for something better.

"Obviously, I am happy to see these guys get called up from the minors and pitch for KBO clubs," the coach said. "But it's more important for me to see that they leave here with hope for a better future."


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