Rangers’ Choo shares advice with countryman Park
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Two friends from South Korea were supposed to have dinner on Saturday night last weekend in the Twin Cities.Then baseball happened.A day earlier, just as Shin-Soo Choo was waking up in his hotel room to prepare for a three-gam...
ARLINGTON, Texas - Two friends from South Korea were supposed to have dinner on Saturday night last weekend in the Twin Cities.
Then baseball happened.
A day earlier, just as Shin-Soo Choo was waking up in his hotel room to prepare for a three-game series against the Minnesota Twins, he received a message from Byung Ho Park with his regrets.
“He sent me a text and told me he was sent to the minor leagues,” said Choo, the Texas Rangers’ star right fielder. “I called him right away.”
Stunned but not really surprised after a six-week downturn wrecked a solid start to his major league career, Park didn’t have much time to talk. He was busy packing for a flight to upstate New York, where he would join the Triple-A Red Wings.
Even though he was allowed to take up to 72 hours to report, Park didn’t want to waste any time.
“I thought he would be upset, but he understands the situation,” Choo said. “I really like him personally. He’s a real good person. He’s working really hard. I know he’s going through some hard times right now, but I’ve been through that many, many times in my baseball career.”
Four years older than Park, Choo turns 34 during the all-star break. Park turns 30 on Sunday as the Twins close out the first half and their season series with the Rangers.
The shared birthday celebration that was planned for the Twin Cities will have to wait for another time.
They are different players and have taken different paths, but still there is much Park can learn from listening to Choo and from studying his career arc.
Signed by the Seattle Mariners at age 18 as a Korean amateur, Choo received a $1.2 million bonus and the spotlight that came with such an investment. It would take him four-plus years in the minor leagues before he reached the big leagues briefly with the Mariners in 2005, just missing Paul Molitor’s one-and-done turn as a hitting coach.
Sent back to Triple-A Tacoma two more times for additional seasoning, Choo was traded a decade ago this month to the Cleveland Indians.
Gradually he came into his own as a left-handed hitter with good power, an all-fields approach and a keen batting eye. But there would be two more tours at Triple-A Buffalo in the International League, not far from where Park throws down his bags now, and then a few more injury-marred seasons along with a second trade, this time to Cincinnati in a three-way, nine-player deal.
After a one-year stopover with the Reds, Choo signed a seven-year, $130 million deal with the Rangers that began with the 2014 season. That contract cemented Choo’s status as the most successful Korean hitter in major league history, but it has hardly been easy.
“You can’t always go up; sometimes you go down,” Choo said, holding his right hand at eye level to demonstrate. “Some people go a little bit down and then go up. Look at me. I have over 10 years in the major leagues, but I don’t have all good seasons. Some years I’ve been injured, some years I’ve pressed.”
“That’s what I told him,” Choo said. “Just look at me. I’ve had problems, too, and not just with baseball.”
The cultural transition cannot be overstated. In Park’s case, he moved to Minnesota with his wife and young son, a difficult dynamic even before adding the step up in competition.
Along the way, Choo dealt with loneliness, homesickness, self-doubt and some level of embarrassment from the expectations in his home country.
“Baseball,” he said, “is tough.”
Clear your mind
With the help and guidance of his coaches, friends and advisers, Choo made it through the fire and came out stronger for the experience. Park can do the same, he said. The key is to find something positive in every day at the ballpark, which could run counter to the way they were taught back home.
“When you have something go wrong, you want to fix it,” Choo said of the Korean mentality. “For some players, if you have a bad game, the next day is a new day. For us, when we have a bad game, it’s, ‘Oh, no, I have to fix the problem. I have to watch video, take 100 swings in the cage.’”
He shook his head.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that’s not helping,” he said. “In baseball, you have a bad game, you still think about it but you can’t go back in time. The best way to handle bad games is to clear your mind. It’s not easy, but I started doing it the last couple years, just through experience.”
In 12 major league seasons, Choo is a career .281 hitter with 146 home runs and 565 runs batted in. His .382 on-base percentage ranks 10th among active players. Although troubled recently by a stiff back, he reminds himself how fortunate he is to be on the field after battling injuries as a younger player.
“I’m happy to play on the field every day; that’s the most important thing,” he said. “If I go 0 for 5 with five punchouts, that’s a bad game, but I still can find positive things that will help me. Everybody wants to hit two homers every game.
“Now, if I strike out, I’m mad maybe a couple of seconds. Then I say, ‘OK, next at-bat.’ Then, ‘Next at-bat.’ Then, ‘Next day.’ That’s baseball. Baseball is so many negative things. You can’t make a slump bigger than it is. You have to think positive. His (experience) was all negatives. So many negatives.”
Molitor and hitting coach Tom Brunansky tried to reassure Park, even as his average plummeted, that he was making strides. But the numbers on the scoreboard spoke otherwise each time Park stepped into the batter’s box, and gradually he began to loose faith.
Park was hitting a season-high .268 with seven home runs and 12 RBI and 27 strikeouts after his 25th major league game. Since then, it’s been a steady fall. When he was sent down, Park was hitting .191 with 12 homers and 24 RBI and had struck out 80 times in 62 games.
“I know Park; he can do this,” Choo said. “Even for good players, the first time over here is tough. He had a tough time in Korea, too, when he was younger. He went to the minor leagues there, too.”
Indeed, after two disappointing seasons with the LG Twins in his late teens, Park spent his age-20 and age-21 seasons in the Korean minors as he cultivated his power stroke. Even after returning to the LG Twins for three more seasons (2009-11), it took a trade to the Nexen Heroes for Park to fully blossom into a two-time Korea Baseball Organization MVP.
Frogs will jump
You might assume Park and his interpreter J.D. Kim spent time in each road city taking in the sights, but that wasn’t the case at all.
Park smiled and nodded at the idea he might want to walk around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or Kansas City’s Plaza during the season-opening road trip, but he was basically the classic hotel/ballpark/airport kind of guy.
As his troubles mounted, he took solace in his routine, taxing his right wrist with thousands of extra swings. There was no time for him to unplug with a good meal or perhaps a visit to a museum.
“I did the same thing,” Choo said. “My first couple of years in the big leagues, if I had a bad game, I’d be in the clubhouse at 10 o’clock the next morning, working in the cage. That won’t help. That just makes (Park) more stressed.
“The game and the cage are different. Practice is different. Baseball is 162 games. It’s a long season. Korea is different. In Korea, the longest road trip is only a four-hour bus ride. That’s it. Here, you have to take a plane all the time. So you have to be smart about it. Work smart. Sometimes less is better.”
In their recent phone conversation before Park shipped off for Rochester, Choo shared with him a metaphor about frogs.
“I told him, frogs always want to jump,” Choo said. “Most of the time they take little jumps. Sometimes, though, frogs stay longer in one spot and build up their strength. Why? Because they have farther to jump. You know what I’m saying?”
He smiled again.
“This is true in life, not just baseball,” he said. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen next, so you have to understand why God gives you this hard time. The first time it happened to me, I was the same way: ‘Why? Why am I having this hard time? Why do they catch my line drives?’ ”
There is no point, he said, in asking why.
“If you have a hard time, you can get through that,” Choo said. “That’s why they give you a hard time, so you can learn something. I can find a small positive thing in anything. I’m healthy. That’s the bottom line, and I can play.”
Heading back to Triple-A could give Park a chance to rediscover his power stroke and his confidence. Perhaps the next time he is ready to return, his frog jump will produce a major leap forward.
“You’re not a bench player,’ “ Choo told his friend. “You have to play every day, but in the major leagues they always want to win. It’s hard to put you in the lineup because you’re struggling. It’s better for you to go to the minor leagues and play every day. That will help you.”
Park listened carefully.
“I know it’s different in the minor leagues but you will learn something, and not just baseball,” Choo added. “I know you are having a tough time right now, but at the end of this year you will probably laugh at this moment. It will probably be a big help for your baseball career and for your life. This is nothing when it comes to hard times. Trust me, you will laugh at this moment.”