BOARDMAN, Ohio -- Shin-Soo Choo's name had barely been announced when that familiar sound began floating through the room at Antone's Banquet Center. They weren't booing, of course. The Indians fans gathered here for the latest stop on the Tribe's winter Press Tour were saying, "Chooooo!" "You see that, Choo?" said Indians announcer and emcee Tom Hamilton. "Even in Youngstown, they know the chant."
Indeed, the people of Mahoning Valley were speaking Choo's language. And he was speaking theirs. Not all that long ago, the idea of the South Korean-born Choo taking part in such an event would have been a little far-fetched, given his less-than-masterful command of the English language. "When I first came to the United States in 2000, after high school, I didn't know any English," Choo told the crowd of about 350. "All I could say was 'hi' and 'thank you.'" But Choo's come a long way, as evidenced on this night in which he did a local radio interview and participated in a Q&A session with fans. He's come a long way on the baseball field, too. Choo, 26, enters 2009 as the Indians' starting right fielder, and, as the "Choo!" chant proves, he's quickly becoming one of the Tribe's more popular players. Coming off an '08 season in which he returned from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and batted .309 with 14 homers, 28 doubles and 66 RBIs in 94 games, Choo has set a high standard for himself. "I had a good season last year after surgery," he said. "It was a surprise to me. I've really worked hard this offseason for the '09 season." The work has been done at the Indians' new Spring Training facility in Goodyear, Ariz. Choo bought a house about seven miles from the facility and moved his family, which includes his wife, Woon Mi and 3-year-old son, Alan, out west. "They love it," Choo said. "It's a lot warmer than Cleveland." Choo's Spring Training stint might be interrupted by his participation in the World Baseball Classic. He's on the provisional roster for Korea, and he hopes to get the opportunity to take part in the 16-team tournament. The final rosters must be set by Feb. 24. "I want to play," he said. "The last time I played with the flag on my chest was in high school." But Choo also knows his real responsibility in the months ahead. "I told [the Indians], 'I'm from Korea, but my job is with the Cleveland Indians,'" Choo said. "The team comes first." And the 2009 season comes before his two-year obligation to the Korean military. As an able-bodied male, Choo must serve before the age of 30. Korea is not expected to exempt the members of the country's World Baseball Classic team from their military service, as it did in 2006. But while neither he nor the Indians are saying so publicly, it's possible Choo will simply not return to his native land and therefore avoid the commitment. When the topic of his military situation came up Tuesday night, Choo said he has other priorities at the moment. "I don't want to think about it," he said. "I have to serve in 2010. I want to help my team win and make the playoffs this year, then I'll think about it." That drew a round of applause from an audience of fans who have clearly taken a liking to Choo. And the feeling is mutual. Choo has been a regular on this banquet circuit this week, and he said he's loved the opportunity to meet some fans, especially the little kids. "If I could speak better English," he said, "I'd do this every day."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.