ST. PETERSBURG — Friday night will serve as a socially-distanced high school reunion of sorts.
Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi and Blue Jays starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu won’t be able to embrace, shake hands or whatever they would normally do to greet each other. And their reunion on the field will take place 7,541 miles from Dong San High School, which they both attended (four years apart) in Incheon, South Korea.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” said Korean journalist Jae Ho Kim of MK Sports. “Korean pitcher facing a Korean hitter in major leagues, it’s always a big issue in the country.”
Choi, 29, and Ryu, 33, are two of 11 active Korean baseball players in Major League Baseball, according to Baseball Almanac.
“Ryu is a very great pitcher, one of the best pitchers in the league,” Choi said through team translator Steve Nam. “And with both of us coming from the same high school, it’s an honor to face him.”
Kim said Choi, going into his second full year with the Rays, isn’t as popular as Ryu in South Korea.
“(Choi) came to states when he graduated high school, so he’s not as popular as the other guy,” Kim said, “because the other guy is like a superstar.”
Choi agreed that Ryu is more of a fan favorite back home.
“People don’t really watch any of my games, but I know they’re tuning in to watch Hyun-Jin Ryu,” Choi said. “So I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of people watching for this game.”
The two knew each other from middle school, and are tied together forever from high school, but Choi said they didn’t talk much growing up because “he is busy doing his stuff and I was busy trying to work my way to the majors.”
Before Choi’s rookie season with the Angels, Ryu, who was on the Dodgers at the time, posted a photo on Instagram of him, Choi, Rangers outfielder Shin-soo Choo and Mariners first baseman Dae-ho Lee.
There’s no guarantee that Choi, a left-handed batter, will get an opportunity to face Ryu, who throws left-handed, but Kim thinks it could carry some weight for Choi if it happens.
“Choi might take a little bit more motivation when facing Ryu,” Kim said. “It could be he wants to prove him(self) to all of the fans.”
Choi hit .261 last season with 19 homers. Ryu was an All-Star for the first time with the Dodgers, going 14-5 and leading the MLB with a 2.32 ERA.
“(Ryu) has been facing so many Korean guys and also Choi has been facing some Korean pitchers before, so for them, it may be nothing new,” Kim said. “They’ve been in the situation before, but very interesting because it’s (their) first time facing each other.”
Contact Kyle Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @Kkylewood.