BRADENTON — New Pirates first baseman Ji-Man Choi noted before Friday’s exhibition that Rays manager Kevin Cash still owed him a dinner as payment for a supposed bet last season.
He even joked that he told Rays assistant hitting coach Brady North, with whom he was having a postgame dinner, “to bring Cash’s (credit) cards.”
Choi, traded in November to create 40-man roster space, got some payback of his own in the first inning, hitting a two-run home run off former teammate Luis Patino.
And he enjoyed it, looking back after crossing home to the Rays dugout and Cash.
“I just wanted to know what’s on his mind,” Choi said via interpreter Daniel Park, who followed him from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh.
All of which made for an even better first reunion, as Choi had come out on the field during the Rays’ batting practice, sharing hugs and laughs with Cash (who was unaware of what wager Choi was talking about), team executives Erik Neander and Peter Bendix, some staff and players.
“He looked good," Cash said. “Good to see him. Knocked the ball out of the ballpark. We’ve seen him do that."
Choi said the trade caught him a bit off guard, but wasn’t shocking as there had been rumors in prior offseasons that he might get moved, having been with the Rays since June 2018.
“I somewhat predicted it because every year there has been talks about it, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise," he said.
Choi, 31, said he was enjoying getting to know his new Pirates teammates. And manager Derek Shelton — a former Rays hitting coach — said they like having him: “He has a good way about him. ... He has an energy, he has a lot of enthusiasm and fun about him. It’s good to see, and it’s important for our young players.”
But Choi acknowledged that he missed the Tampa Bay fans.
“The fans are one of the factors that made me really sad," Choi said. “And coming over here (to the Pirates), I see some Rays fans coming to watch our game sometimes. And that really makes me romanticize about the Rays fans."
Besides part of his heart, Choi also left his No. 26 in the past, deciding to switch to No. 91 — which, for what it’s worth, has been worn by only seven players in major-league history.
“The No. 26, I just wanted to leave it as a memory for Tampa Bay," Choi said. “And 91, I thought it’s a number that most players don’t usually wear. So I wanted to try something new."
Choi has many fond memories from his 4 ½ seasons with the Rays, often referring to the special feeling he had when Tropicana Field fans chanted his name before at-bats.
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He said Friday that he considered the 2019 season his most memorable. He had his best overall performance (hitting .261 with 19 homers, 63 RBIs and an .822 OPS), and the Rays ended a five-year playoff drought by winning a wild-card spot, then beating Oakland and taking Houston to five games in the division series.
“That’s the year we went to the postseason after a couple seasons failing to go," Choi said. “And every year since 2019, we started to go to the postseason, too. So I would say 2019 was the best year for me and the Rays fans."
Choi also had some struggles, sidelined several times by injuries and slumping for some extended periods.
Cash said Choi meant a lot to the franchise.
“Big personality. The fanbase loved him. Came up with certainly some big hits over his time with us. Was part of a pretty special 2020 team,” Cash said. “When he got going at the plate, he could really add to and help with our offense.”
Though Friday was fun, Choi is looking forward to the Pirates’ May 2-4 trip to St. Petersburg, and the chance to play again in front of the Rays fans he so loved.
“I’m very excited to come back," he said. “But I know Cash is not going to give me an easy pitcher. I know he’s going to try to challenge me."
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