ATLANTA — There is a lot we still don't know about Ji-Man Choi, the Rays' international man of some mystery. But we are learning.
Such as the variety of ways he entertains his teammates, how beloved he is in his native South Korea, the way he communicates in different languages.
What has become quite apparent is he can hit in the major leagues, at least when given the opportunity for regular at-bats, evidenced by his .340 average and 1.043 OPS over his past 14 games as a DH and pinch-hitter.
"Our guys upstairs did a good job recognizing he'd done some things, probably under the surface, especially against right-hand pitchers, and he's got a knack for hitting the ball hard,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "He's done some good things for us. Talking to Ji-Man … there's been a lot that he's learned about himself, where he was putting so much pressure on himself early with some of his opportunities to get to the big leagues, whereas this environment allows him to relax a little bit, his teammates have allowed him to relax, and he's kind of flourished in that role.''
Choi, 27, agrees that the opportunity has begat success.
Signed and brought up through the Mariners system, he spent a couple of months with the Angels in 2016, a couple of weeks with the Yankees in 2017 and played in a dozen games for the Brewers this year before the Rays got him in a June trade for Brad Miller, who has since been released.
"I feel more comfortable at the plate that I get to play more time,'' Choi said through an interpreter, which is another part of the story. "I really appreciate the coaching staff and the Rays, that they are giving me the opportunity to play in the big leagues.''
Just like kids growing up in Florida or Iowa, or Puerto Rico or Venezuela, Choi said his dream also was to make it to the big leagues.
"I played baseball as a little kid, and I'm always thinking that I want to play full time in the major leagues in the United States, and I'm getting close to it,'' Choi said. "I don't know what's coming in the future, but if I could be a full-time major-leaguer, that would be awesome. If I get that opportunity, I can do better than what I've done for the team so far.''
Besides delivering some key hits, Choi has provided a lot of laughs.
"He's a piece of work,'' Cash said. "Great one-liners. He takes a lot of jokes in stride. And he dishes it really well. He's definitely done a good job of keeping the dugout loose.''
"He's hilarious,'' added centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. "He's one of those guys that he speaks enough English to where it's really funny. He knows how to talk trash, all the bad words. And he talks Spanish, too, just as much Spanish as English.''
Also, the dances.
Choi, in collaboration with outfielder Carlos Gomez and a few others, does this — well, it's better to see it than try to explain it — form of a dance when he reaches base, based on a video they had seen of a Latin singer Gomez called El Sujeto.
"His little dance, it's so funny,'' Kiermaier said. "It's just who he is and why we enjoy having him here.''
Choi spends most of the offseason in Arizona, only going back to South Korea for a month or so to see his mom and brother, whom he hopes to one day bring over to the States.
Though he speaks enough English to converse with teammates and coaches, he won't do interviews without a Korean interpreter, which has been handled thus far with a third party on the phone, creating an interesting dynamic.
Choi's every word, and every swing, are followed closely by South Korean fans, including about 20,000 avid members of a Facebook-based fan club site, according to John Lee, one of the administrators. Fans leave comments; Choi sometimes replies. (Evidence of how avid they are, Lee first reached out to me via email to ask why Choi wasn't getting the chance to play first base, and he attached a video of past defensive highlights.)
Choi is one of only four Koreans currently in the majors, and Lee said with the other three — Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, Rockies pitcher Seunghwan Oh and Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu — heading toward the end of their careers, Choi's popularity will increase. Plus, he already has earned goodwill by establishing a charitable foundation, at choi51.com.
"Choi is very popular in Korea,'' Lee said. "He is a very hard worker, a good ballplayer and has a warm heart. … We love Choi, not only the ballplayer as well as a nice person.''
Hitting coach Chad Mottola said Choi has shown enough, with a combination of power and patience at the plate, that "we get to dream a little more.''
The Rays will use the next few weeks to further determine if the defensively limited Choi, who makes $850,000 this season and is under team control through 2023 but out of options after this season, fits their 2019 plans.
That's one more thing we don't yet know.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]