With MLB season delayed, Rays’ Choi Ji-man coming back to S. Korea

March 20, 2020

With the 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) season on hold indefinitely due to the coronavirus, Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays is coming back to his native South Korea.

From his St. Petersburg, Florida, condo on Thursday (local time), the first baseman told the Tampa Bay Times that he felt he could better prepare for the new season, whenever it begins, at home than in the United States.

According to the paper, Choi is finalizing details to fly back next week and is hoping he’d have more opportunities to work out in South Korea, where the surge in coronavirus cases seems to be slowing down. Things are just picking up pace across the U.S.

The infielder would then become the first of four South Korean big leaguers to come home.

In this file photo from Feb. 19, 2020, Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays drinks water during practice at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Yonhap)
In this file photo from Feb. 19, 2020, Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays hits the ball during live batting practice at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Yonhap)

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

“I still want to focus on baseball, and I want to be in shape,” Choi was quoted as saying. “And with the situation now with the Trop (Tropicana Field, the Rays’ home) and Port Charlotte facilities (for spring training) being closed, I’m not able to access them at all so there is no place to work out in this area. So the best thing for me to do is to go home, where (the coronavirus) seems to be dying down and more places are opening.”

Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers, Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals and Ryu Hyun-jin of the Toronto Blue Jays are all staying in the U.S. Ryu is in the Jays’ spring training home in Dunedin, Florida, and is for the time being unable to fly north to Toronto, after Canada closed borders to foreigners earlier this week.

The Rays at first had permitted players to work out in Port Charlotte but shut down operations Tuesday. The regular season was set to start next Thursday, but it has been pushed back to at least late May, following a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week to cancel or postpone gatherings of 50 or more people for the next two months.

The U.S. travel restrictions could be an issue for Choi, who believes he should be able to return to America in time for the start of the season, though there’s no way of predicting when that time will come.

“I think there will be a season so I just want to be in shape,” he said. “That’s all I’m thinking of, to be ready for when the time comes.”

In 2019, his first full season with the Rays, Choi batted .261/.363/.459 with 19 home runs, 63 RBIs and 20 doubles in 127 games, the last four numbers being all new career highs.

South Korea’s top pro league, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), has also delayed the start of its regular season. But teams are allowed to practice at their home parks and play intrasquad games. The KBO and team officials will meet next Tuesday to discuss the league schedule.

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