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Rays' Choi Ji-man hoping for shot at Olympic baseball glory

All News 16:19 February 20, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE, United States, Feb. 20 (Yonhap) -- It's been more than a decade since South Korean infielder Choi Ji-man moved to the United States to pursue his major league dreams. Choi bounced around multiple organizations and struggled to find his footing while his contemporaries enjoyed success in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).

At 28 and coming off his most successful big league season with the Tampa Bay Rays, one would think Choi is no longer stricken with homesickness. But he still wants a chance to play with fellow Korean players while wearing the national flag on his jersey.

The best opportunity to do so, as far as Choi is concerned, would be at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays drinks water during practice at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Yonhap)

Speaking on Wednesday at Charlotte Sports Park, the Rays' spring training complex here in Florida, Choi revealed that a clause in his contract guarantees an Olympic appearance this year. But Major League Baseball (MLB) doesn't allow those on the 40-man roster to take time off during the season for the Olympics, a fact not lost on Choi.

"I have the permission from the team but I don't know if this will come true," Choi said of his participation in the Olympics. "This is really up to MLB. Or maybe I could be traded and the clause won't mean anything. But I'd love to play in the Olympics and be a member of the national team."

Asked why he was so intent on representing the country, Choi said he just wanted to be on the same team his countrymen and chase a common goal.

"I miss being part of Korean baseball; I haven't had a chance to play with Korean players since I became an adult," said Choi, who left his native country after high school. "This year, I wanted to work out with a KBO team (in Florida) before our spring training began. I didn't get the green light from the team, though."

Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays (R) signs a baseball for a fan after practice at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Yonhap)

If Choi produces at the rate he did a year ago, the Rays wouldn't want him gone for weeks in the middle of this upcoming season for the Olympics. In 127 games, Choi hit 19 home runs and had 63 RBIs, both career highs. Choi ranked second on the team in walks (64) and third in on-base percentage (.363).

As for his goal for 2020, Choi said, "I'd like to stay healthy for the whole season and play as well as last year."

A product of Dongsan High School in Incheon, just west of Seoul, Choi now finds himself in the same American League East division as fellow Dongsan alum Ryu Hyun-jin. The veteran left-hander signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in December, after seven years with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays hits the ball during live batting practice at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Yonhap)

The two have not yet faced each other, but that will most likely change this year, as the Rays and the Blue Jays will square off 19 times.

"I think I'll feel really proud if I go up against Hyun-jin," Choi said. "I heard our school back home is keeping an eye on it. I am looking forward to the matchup."

Choi, who bats left-handed, received just 94 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers last year, and batted .210/.309/.321 with two home runs.

Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays fields a groundball during practice at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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