ST. PETERSBURG — In a sign of how quickly the world situation has changed, Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi is headed back to his native South Korea because he feels he can better prepare for the major-league season there than in the United States.
Choi is finalizing details to fly back next week, thinking he would have more opportunities to work out there as the coronavirus pandemic now seems to be subsiding in Korea, where it had previously been severe, while it is spreading rapidly in the United States.
“I still want to focus on baseball and I want to be in shape, and with the situation now with the Trop and Port Charlotte facilities being closed I’m not able to access them at all so there is no place to work out in this area,” Choi said Thursday, via interpreter Steve Nam, from the St. Petersburg condo he moved into recently.
“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. I know I have a place to work out over there and stay in shape before the season starts. So that’s my mindset right now.”
Choi has a home in South Korea, and his brother owns a baseball facility for him to be able to work out regularly. Choi also has a home in the Phoenix area, but feels better about returning to Incheon.
Teams in Korea were recently allowed to resume practicing and playing intrasquad games, but no date has been set to start the season.
The Rays had been allowing players to work out at the Port Charlotte facility, but decided Tuesday to cease operations there. Plans to shift workouts to the Trop starting next week were also paused. The season, which was to start next Thursday, has been delayed until at least late May.
Travel restrictions could be an issue, which Choi, 28, said his agent is researching, but he expects to be able to return to the United States in advance of the start of the Rays’ season, whenever that is.
“I don’t think there will be any problem getting back in when the time comes,” Choi said. “I think there will be a season so I just want to be in shape. That’s all I’m thinking of, to be ready for when the time comes.”
With Choi heading back to Korea, Nam, who just joined the Rays last month, is unsure what he should do, such as going back to his family home in the Philadelphia area.