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Talks with close friend in baseball nudge Choo Shin-soo toward KBO

All News 10:04 February 26, 2021

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) -- As he was contemplating a move to South Korea following 16 years in the majors, former Texas Rangers All-Star Choo Shin-soo reached out to one of his best friends in baseball, Jeong Keun-woo.

Jeong ended his own 16-year career in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) last November. And the 38-year-old ex-second baseman offered Choo a unique perspective on what lay ahead, leading Choo to take the leap and sign with the SK Wyverns -- soon to be renamed after their sale to Shinsegae Group -- on Tuesday.

Choo Shin-soo of the Korea Baseball Organization club owned by Shinsegae Group poses in his new club's temporary jersey after arriving at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, just west of Seoul, on Feb. 25, 2021. (Yonhap)

"When I first told him I was thinking about going to Korea, Keun-woo was worried at first, because I spent so much time in the U.S. and I'd be coming into a vastly different environment," Choo told reporters Thursday after arriving at Incheon International Airport, just west of Seoul. "But he also told me a lot of great things about playing here. He said, 'I'm retired now, but you'll have a chance to give people hopes and dreams in a new place.' Once I heard him say that, I wanted to play in Korea even more."

Choo and Jeong were teammates at Busan High School in Busan, a baseball-crazed city located 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul. After Choo signed with the Seattle Mariners after high school, Jeong attended Korea University and made his KBO debut in 2005, the same year that Choo reached the big show.

Choo went on to become the most successful South Korean hitter in Major League Baseball (MLB) history while Jeong developed into one of the greatest second basemen ever in the KBO.

Choo Shin-soo of the Korea Baseball Organization club owned by Shinsegae speaks to reporters after arriving at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, just west of Seoul, on Feb. 25, 2021. (Yonhap)

Both born in 1982, they are members of a golden generation in Korean baseball, along with other 1982 births.

Choo is one of three players in that age group to have played in the majors, joined by reliever Oh Seung-hwan, who played for three teams from 2016 to 2019, and one-time Mariners first baseman Lee Dae-ho.

Their times in MLB all overlapped, but Choo has forged the strongest friendship with Jeong.

"Of all the guys (born in 1982), I only talked to Keun-woo (about the KBO move)," Choo said. "We're really tight. We open our hearts to each other."

Choo and Lee, currently playing for the Lotte Giants here, played on the same elementary school team in Busan. Their two KBO clubs will clash on Opening Day on April 3.

"It's always great to see friends on the field," Choo said of the upcoming showdown. "We faced each other in the U.S., too, and I don't think it'll feel that much different when we meet again here."

In this file photo from Nov. 11, 2020, former LG Twins second baseman Jeong Keun-woo speaks during his retirement press conference at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Choo, Jeong and Lee, along with some other contemporaries, have also thrived in international competitions for the national team. And by coming over to the KBO, Choo has also made himself eligible to play for the country at the Tokyo Olympics in July.

From MLB, only players on the 40-man rosters who aren't in the majors are allowed to compete at the Olympics. Choo, an established veteran, wouldn't have been eligible for the Olympics had he signed with a big league club. And his presence in the lineup would be a major boon for South Korea, who will be without slugging shortstop Kim Ha-seong, who signed with the San Diego Padres in December.

In this file photo from Oct. 4, 2020, Jeong Keun-woo of the LG Twins hits an RBI double against the KT Wiz in the top of the eighth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Choo, who last played for South Korea at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, didn't want to get ahead of himself with the Olympic talk.

"First of all, I'll have to be good enough to earn my place in the Olympics," he said. "But if I have good numbers and I am playing well enough (during the season), then I will absolutely play in the Olympics."

Despite his strong big league credentials -- he is the career leader among Asian players with 218 home runs and 782 RBIs -- Choo was mindful of the fact that he'll be a newbie in the KBO.

"This will be my first time playing pro ball here," Choo said. "I'm here to learn."

In this file photo from Nov. 18, 2010, Jeong Keun-woo (L) and Choo Shin-soo of South Korea are greeted by their teammates after scoring on Kim Tae-kyun's double against China in the bottom of the fifth inning of the semifinal in the baseball tournament at the Guangzhou Asian Games at Aoti Baseball Field in Guangzhou, China. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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