Every so often, Shin-Soo Choo thinks about the ones who didn't make it. There were hundreds just like him at South Korea's Pusan High School, a baseball academy run like a boot camp: There were 5 a.m. wake-up calls, morning practices, afternoon practices, grueling hours in the weight room at night. The boys lived on campus and saw their families on Sundays. "We didn't study. All we did was play baseball, think baseball, nothing but baseball," says Choo. "The problem is, if you don't make it in baseball, what do you do?"
Choo—the Indians' rightfielder and the best player in the majors that no one is talking about—is one of the few who has made it. (He knows of only one high school classmate who is playing professionally, in Korea.) At 28, Choo is the most accomplished position player to hail from his baseball-crazed nation. But he is more than a novelty act: He has also emerged as one of the few true five-tool talents in the major leagues, a star in the making who plays under a cloak of anonymity for a small-market, downtrodden franchise.
But before he could make his remarkable transformation from a pitching phenom—he was, at 18, "the best amateur pitcher in the world," insists Mariners Pacific Rim operations director Ted Heid—to a dazzling outfielder with a perfect swing; before he could become a national phenomenon in Korea ("He's as big as the most popular movie star," says Park Kwang-min, a baseball writer for Korean media company OSEN who visits the U.S. several times a season cover the expatriate), Choo had to do what few ballplayers from his homeland have dared to try: make it in the U.S. "I had to have a big, big dream," he says. "I could have stayed in Korea like everyone else, but I wanted to play the best baseball in the world. No one else wanted to come. They were scared. I wanted to come."
Says Heid, "Koreans don't need to come to the U.S. to prove anything. The professional league there is very competitive; the players are well-paid. There's a lot of national pride. To be willing to risk everything to come to the U.S.? It takes a very special person."
NO ONE believed the boy would make it in America, not even his own parents, who accompanied him to the U.S. after he signed with the Mariners out of high school, in 2000. Yes, the $1.3 million signing bonus was big for his family, but the risks were enormous: If their son failed in the U.S., Choo says, he would be banned for two years from playing baseball in Korea, where he had been bound for stardom. The boy's father, So-Mien, had always been Choo's biggest supporter. When U.S. scouts came to Pusan to see his son, So-Mien borrowed a car to drive them around; when they couldn't all fit, he gave the scouts the car and walked several miles by himself. But on Choo's first day with the Mariners in '01, So-Mien looked around at the other ballplayers in the instructional league in Arizona, saw how much bigger they were than his 5'11", 175-pound son, and thought to himself, The boy has no chance.
"That first day, it was 120 degrees," Choo says. "My mom kept saying, 'It's so hot.' She said, 'You made a mistake. Come home with us.' And I told her, 'Don't say that. Respect my choice. I can make it here.'"
When Seattle signed him, Choo had played some outfield but was mainly a pitcher with a 97-mph fastball and, says Heid, "two above-average secondary pitches." Beginning with Chan Ho Park, who became the first South Korean--born major leaguer when he broke in as a reliever with the Dodgers in 1994, a handful of pitchers from Choo's homeland had found mixed success in the U.S. But given the history of injuries among Korean pitchers—they had often been overworked from a young age—and Choo's undersized frame, the Mariners questioned whether his arm would hold up. One day in the spring of 2001 Choo had just finished a bullpen session when a minor league pitching coach told him to grab a bat and join the position players. "I said, 'What? I can't hit,'" he recalls.
That wasn't all that made a move off the mound risky: At that point there had never been a South Korean position player in the majors. "The question was longevity," says Heid. "[Eventually] his tools as an outfielder really outweighed everything else."
Choo never pitched again. He hit .311 in 54 games in rookie ball and Class A in 2001, and by '04 he was a highly rated outfield prospect at Triple A Tacoma. Before the '06 trading deadline Seattle dealt him to Cleveland for first baseman Ben Broussard. Two days after the trade, in his debut with the Indians, Choo launched a home run in his third at bat, off Seattle's Felix Hernandez. Cleveland beat Choo's former team 1--0. "We were watching in Tacoma," says his former teammate in the Mariners' organization, Eddie Menchaca, now a manager at Class A Clinton. "The clubhouse erupted, everyone started chanting 'Choo! Choo! Choo!'"
A man appeared in the Tacoma clubhouse to see what the commotion was about. It was then Mariners G.M. Bill Bavasi, visiting from Seattle. It was quickly becoming apparent that he had just gifted the Indians their next star.