PORT CHARLOTTE — Baseball was not always so much fun for Ji-Man Choi.
He spent his first six years in the minors (a back injury kept him out for all of the 2011 season) after signing with the Mariners as an 18-year-old from South Korea in 2009. Changed teams three straight years, splitting his time between the majors and minors, after making his big-league debut with the Angels in 2016. Was sent back to Triple-A for part of the 2018 season after the Rays acquired him from the Brewers.
Along the way, he learned to enjoy himself.
“I definitely had a more difficult time,” Choi said Friday via team interpreter Steve Nam. “But recently, definitely, I tried to change my mindset where I laugh more. They say if I laugh more, I bring out more positive energy.
“Hopefully, with that positive energy I can just kind of contribute to the team and have kind of a better atmosphere around the team so everyone can have better days.”
On many days, Choi, 29, is the life of the party on the Rays.
He’s the one dancing, making faces, clowning around, talking trash in better English than he lets on, sharing extensively on social media and (when spectators were permitted) playing to the fans.
“That’s him,” said manager Kevin Cash.
Choi is using spring training to get back into form.
While waiting to hit during one workout this week, he grabbed team photographer Will Vragovic’s long-lens camera to snap frames of teammates. Another day, he did an exaggerated wave and yelled a distanced hello to reporters, then pantomimed that one had gained weight. As Friday’s Zoom media call wound down, he threw up his arms in mock disgust over an additional question.
Most of all, he laughed. A lot.
Here are some other things Choi had to say in his first spring media session:
On arbitration: Eligible for the first to have a say in his pay, Choi went to an arbitration hearing and beat the Rays, getting a $2.45 million salary rather than the offered $1.85 million, a nice raise from the $850,000 he was to make in 2020. “It was definitely a new experience. Obviously, winning it makes it a little bit fun,” he said. “I haven’t bought anything yet, but if you guys have any recommendations, I’ll take it.”
On offseason workouts during the pandemic: Choi went home to South Korea after the World Series but couldn’t do much work as gyms and training facilities were shut down.
“It was kind of difficult for me to kind of get in my routine,” he said. “So I had to kind of go back to, like, a high school workout, where I have to go outside and train, do a lot of things outside in the freezing cold … a lot of heavy lifting, like lifting tires or dragging tires on the streets.”
He was able to get back into a gym about a month ago. But due to the protocols, he was not able to take the yoga and pilates classes he has in the past, which may limit those physics-defying and shudder-inducing splits he is known for around first base.
“The splits will be a little bit difficult in the beginning, but hopefully in this season I’ll be able to do it,” Choi said, adding he hopes the infielders “are able to help me out in that aspect” with higher throws.
On switch-hitting: The natural lefty swinger had dabbled with switch-hitting in the minors and during previous spring trainings but decided to try hitting right-handed for the first time in the majors on July 26 — and homered in his second at-bat.
He tried it only 10 more times, with two more hits, but decided it wasn’t right to take away from his prep work as a left-handed hitter. Friday, he said he was no longer a switch-hitter. “Something that I didn’t think about,” he said. “As a left-handed hitter, I’m confident to put on my best work even facing the lefty. So I’m just going to focus on my left-handed hitting.”
On fans attending spring games: “It’s awesome to see your fans back in the stands,” he said. “They have to kind of adjust to the protocols that obviously they will have, and for us, too. It will be a different atmosphere and different connections with our fans. But I’m just so happy that they’re able to come in to watch the watch us play.”
On Shin-Soo Choo going home to play: Like Choi, Choo signed with a big-league team out of high school and didn’t play in the Korean league. But after 16 years in the majors, he will now, signing with SK Wyverns. “I think it is a great opportunity for Shin-Soo Choo and is maybe a road, a path, that I might have to follow later on in my career,” Choi said. “As long as I can play here, I want to play in the majors. But I do want to experience a lot of different leagues, such as the Japanese league, also in KBO (Korea Baseball Organization). So if I have those opportunities, I’m willing to go there and try it out.”