Rays’ Choi Ji-man gives Korean minor leaguers something he didn’t have: mentorship

February 12, 2021

Back in 2009, Choi Ji-man was one of eight South Korean high school prospects to sign with a major league team. Within just a few years, though, Choi was the only one of the group still plying his trade in America.

It wasn’t until 2016 that Choi finally reached The Show, making his major league debut with the Los Angeles Angels. And he only became an everyday player in 2018 with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Choi is settled in as a big leaguer now. Last year, he became the first South Korean position player to appear in the World Series. He won his first salary arbitration case last week and will make US$2.45 million this year, up from the base salary of $850,000 in 2020.

Looking back, Choi said he never had a mentor that he could lean on for advice as he was coming up in the minors. Today, though, the 29-year-old Choi is embracing the role of a mentor for young Korean minor league players, giving them something he himself didn’t have.

In particular, Choi has built rapport with Pittsburgh Pirates’ infield prospect Bae Ji-hwan.

“We all stay in touch throughout the season and during the offseason, and I think I’ve been around long enough that I can now give young guys some advice,” Choi said during a meeting with a small group of journalists at a Seoul hotel last Friday. Choi departed for the U.S. for spring training two days later.

“I think it goes both ways. There are times when I lean on them for some comfort during tough times,” Choi said. “Early on, I think they were too shy to get in touch with me. So I reached out first and we all became close friends.”

Bae, 21, has earned an invitation to the Pirates’ spring training, which starts later this month. There is zero expectation that Bae will crack the major league lineup right away, since he has yet to play above A-ball. But the point of going to a big league camp at that point in his career is to learn and have fun, Choi said.

“I told Ji-hwan he should just enjoy that experience,” Choi said. “I remember feeling all lost (at my first camp). I said to him that this is a great opportunity and he should go have some fun.”

Hardly anything about Choi’s own minor league days was fun. If he had to go back in time, Choi said he wouldn’t jump straight to the U.S., knowing what he does now about toiling for years in the minors. Choi said he would instead play pro ball in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) first.

“I missed training with Korean players,” said Choi, who reached out to some KBO players to assemble a workout group this offseason. “If I had to make that decision again, I’d probably choose to stay here. I don’t think I was good enough to play in the majors then, anyway.”

During Choi’s time in the U.S., more than a handful of South Korean KBO stars made the jump to the big leagues, but they were all older than Choi. And because Choi didn’t play in the KBO before going to the U.S., he and the other Korean players didn’t have much common ground.

This year, Choi finally has someone his junior from his native country — new San Diego Padres infielder Kim Ha-seong, who is 25 years old.

“I’d like to congratulate him on getting such a great contract,” Choi said of Kim’s four-year deal worth US$28 million. “I won’t get to see him this year because he’s in the National League, but I am sure we’ll have a chance to talk at some point.”

Asked to give Kim some words of advice on playing in the majors, Choi said, “First and foremost, he has to get acclimated to the new surroundings.”

“He’s going to need help from his teammates,” Choi went on. “When I came up from the minors, I didn’t always have the support of my teammates. But Ha-seong is in a different situation because he’s coming over from a pro league. So I think he’ll get a lot of help, and he’s such a great player, too.”