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Ji-Man Choi’s right move got a boost from Howard Johnson

Rays Tales | The Clearwater product was a Mariners minor-league coach when he first showed faith in Choi's switch-hitting abilities.
Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi, left, celebrates a home run with teammate Yandy Diaz (2) during a game last week against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field.
Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi, left, celebrates a home run with teammate Yandy Diaz (2) during a game last week against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]
Published Aug. 1, 2020

The origins of the home run Ji-Man Choi amazingly smashed last Sunday hitting right-handed for the first time in a major-league game trace back to 2013.

Howard Johnson, the former Clearwater High standout and Mets star, was the first-year hitting coach for Seattle’s Triple-A Tacoma team and took an immediate liking to Choi when he was promoted from Double-A for the season’s final weeks.

Choi typically would take a few swings right-handed at the start of his batting-practice routine before switching to his natural left side. Johnson — a switch-hitter who had five straight 23-plus-homer seasons — said he immediately recognized the potential during a session in the cage.

“I’m always looking for guys that will be good converts,” Johnson said Friday. “He jumped in there and hit the ball and I was like, ‘That’s pretty dang good.’ I’m thinking to myself, there’s no way this is real. So I flipped it again, and sure enough, boom, another shot. No matter what I did in that little flip session, he was squaring it up.

“... There’s different guys you see swing and you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s natural,’ and wonder, do they have what it takes physically to do it? Sure enough, Ji-Man was one of those guys.”

Johnson said he told Choi then he “should seriously think about” switch-hitting and that he’d back him, though other Mariners coaches weren’t as high on him. But Johnson got promoted to the big-league staff the next year while Choi was still in the minors, dealing with a 50-game suspension in April 2014 after a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug (which he denied taking) and a broken leg in spring training 2015.

When Choi got back to playing in the minors in August 2015, he gave switch-hitting a try, going 6-for-14 with three walks batting right-handed in nine games.

“Howard Johnson believed in me that I could be a switch-hitter,” Choi said via translator Steve Nam. “I think a lot of other coaches then had their doubts, but he believed in me. … That really helped me along the way.”

But Choi’s experiment came to a quick end as he bounced among five teams over the next 2½ seasons. He got released by the Mariners after the 2015 season, was signed by the Orioles and then taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Angels, who told him in spring to stick to hitting lefty. He signed with the Yankees in 2017 and the Brewers in 2018, then was acquired in trade by the Rays that June.

After establishing himself in 2019 by spending his first full season in the majors, Choi had the confidence to go back to switch-hitting when manager Kevin Cash brought it up this year. After more right-handed swings in batting practice and some positive results during Spring 2.0 action, Choi decided he was ready in his second at-bat Sunday when the Jays switched from righty starter Thomas Hatch to lefty reliever Anthony Kay.

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And Choi stuck with it after striking out the first time, ripping a searing homer to left-center estimated at 429 feet and 110 mph off his bat. (A combo, as we previously noted, he hadn’t reached in any of his 36 lefty homers, per StatCast.)

“That’s crazy,” Johnson said. “The fact that he’s doing it is amazing. It’s hard to be a lefty and go switch righty. That’s what I was, and it’s much harder to do it that way. But he absolutely can do it. … I knew he could. I believe in that guy.”

Choi’s Rays mates were stunned, in a good way. “I already knew he was a really good hitter,” Blake Snell said. “For him to do it from the right side, I was just like, Okay, now this is just getting stupid. … I was just kind of like in awe.”

Choi said friends, former teammates and fans in the states and his native Korea who reached out or posted on social media were more blunt: “They were shocked.”

So was Choi when someone showed him a few days later that changed him on the Rays roster from being a lefty to a switch-hitter. “I was kind of surprised for them to switch my profile that quickly,” he said.

So since it was on the Internet, that means it must be true, right?

“I still don’t know,” Choi said. “Maybe.”

Changing tunes

The Rays made what seemed like a cool move in getting audio of the song that was played — and fans sang along to — when Yoshi Tsutsugo batted for his former Yokohama team in Japan. But after the Rays played it during two of his at-bats in the July 25 game, Tsutsugo sent word he’d prefer they stop. “I’m happy that they thought about that for me, thought about my past,” Tsutsugo said via translator Tsutomo Kamiya. “It’s not that I don’t like it, but I’ve moved on. I’m part of the Rays now. I’m no longer part of Yokohama. I want to move forward as a Ray, and perform well.” Tsutsugo is instead using the Macklemore song, “Can’t Hold Us.”

Rays rumblings

Longtime radio broadcasters Andy Freed and Dave Wills were ranked second in the majors (behind the Giants) in The Athletic’s reader survey, lauded most for their play-by-play work. … Surprising to read Pinellas sheriff Bob Gualtieri say Rays president Matt Silverman told him the opening-day tweet about Breonna Taylor was not authorized by upper management given how thoroughly the Rays typically do business. ... Assistant athletic trainer Mike Sandoval is serving as the team’s Infection Control Prevention Coordinator, essentially in charge of coronavirus protocols and other related issues. … The first batch of fan cutouts were installed at the Trop ahead of Tuesday’s next home game. The Diamondbacks did a cool thing, putting teddy bears in some outfield seats with a tie-in to Phoenix Children’s Hospital. … Johnson, who spent 1996 as a Rays minor-league coach after a 14-year big-league career, lives in Nashville now, helping his son run an indoor sports facility. He was to coach in Mexico this season until it was canceled due to the pandemic. … Well done by Fox Sports Sun lifting the curtain for Wednesday’s first road game, not only showing Brian Anderson and Dewayne Staats calling the game from the Trop, but also the monitors providing different views of the Truist Park action they were using. ... TV ratings through the first six games are up 39 percent over last year (3.2 rating vs. 2.3), with the July 24 opener (and an evening vs. afternoon start) up 72 percent (3.7-2.2, and the best opener since 2016) and ranking as the top cable and primetime program in the market. … To create extra space in the home clubhouse, some lockers were moved to the not-in-use players’ lounge area, others positioned in the middle of the room. … During an MLB Network segment, host Tom Verducci noted the resemblance between Tyler Glasnow and actor Cillian Murphy and wanted to get the pitcher a newsboy cap so he’d fit right in with Murphy’s Peaky Blinders Netflix show … Monday’s 14-5 win marked only the second time in the franchise’s then 3,566-game history that both the Rays and their opponent had more runs than hits. The other? A 12-10 loss at Toronto on July 20, 2002.