SEOUL, Feb. 27 (Yonhap) -- Signing former Texas Rangers All-Star Choo Shin-soo was a major coup for the SK Wyverns, a South Korean club soon to be renamed after its sale to Shinsegae Group.
And for the club CEO Min Kyung-sam, the move was 14 years in the making, the culmination of a pursuit that began in April 2007, when Min was the club's general manager.
In 2007, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) organized a special, one-time draft for overseas-based players. It was designed to offer landing spots for former prospects who'd signed with major league clubs but didn't pan out, or who simply wanted to come home to continue their professional careers. The KBO also felt having players with major league or minor league experience here would spark fan interest.
KBO teams could select the rights to players first and then have exclusive negotiations with those players once they chose to return to Korea. The Wyverns had the first pick, and they selected Choo. Then 24, Choo was in his third major league season but hadn't quite yet established himself following a trade from the Seattle Mariners to the Cleveland Indians the previous year.
"I gathered information from many different channels," Min recalled in a conversation Thursday. "Shin-soo was in his third season, and we felt he would one day decide to come home."
Min said he traveled to the United States two months after the draft and met Choo for the first time. Min waited for about 1 ½ hours after a night game and then the two had a wide-ranging conversation over dinner until 1 a.m.
"At the time, Shin-soo really demonstrated his drive to succeed in the majors," Min said. "He was in great shape, and it was easy to see he'd been putting in work. I couldn't bring myself to ask him to come to Korea. I just wished him success in the big league."
Choo, after recovering from elbow surgery later in 2007, began to play more regularly in 2008. In 2009 and 2010, Choo batted .300 with consecutive 20-20 seasons, with at least 20 homers and 20 steals.
Choo ended up playing 16 years in the majors, with 218 home runs and 782 RBIs, both the highest totals by an Asian-born hitter in major league history.
Just when it looked as though the Wyverns' pick of Choo could go to waste, fate intervened. Min resigned from his general manager post in 2016 but returned as CEO last fall. Choo's seven-year, US$130 million contract with the Texas Rangers expired in 2020 too.
Toward the end of last year, Min told the team's front office to keep an eye on Choo's free agency.
Then on Jan. 7, the team's new general manager, Ryu Sun-kyu, approached Choo's Seoul-based agent, Song Jae-woo, to gauge the player's interest in a homecoming.
Min himself was involved in the early stages of the negotiations last month and then talks picked up traction on Feb. 17. That day, following a third meeting with Choo's camp, Min visited with executives of Shinsegae Group, the ballclub's new owner.
"That's when we got the green light from Shinsegae on terms of our contract with Choo," Min said of the eventual 2.7 billion-won ($2.4 million) deal.
Ryu and Song sat down again immediately to hammer out details of the contract during a five-hour meeting. The final stamp of approval from Shinsegae came on Feb. 19, and the deal was announced three days later.
When Choo landed at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, Thursday evening, Min was there to greet him in person.
That KBO draft was open to players who'd agreed to their first professional contracts outside South Korea after 1999 and had been playing overseas for at least five years. Choo, who signed with the Mariners out of high school in 2000, is the last among seven players selected in that draft to sign with a KBO club.
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