GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Shin-Soo Choo's military obligation to his native South Korea has been weighing on his mind for several years. And now, as the deadline for that obligation nears, even Choo's Indians teammates are starting to wonder if their right fielder will have to give up two years of his career to satisfy the demands of his country. "Jake Westbrook asked me about it," Choo said Monday. "I told him, 'I'm with you guys. Don't worry about it.'"
Able-bodied South Korean men must serve two years in the military by the time they turn 30 years old. For the 27-year-old Choo, who turns 28 in July, that deadline is coming up quick. Choo spent his entire life preparing to become a professional baseball player, and he refuses to walk away from the game at a point where he should be entering his prime. He is hoping to get clearance from the Indians to participate on the South Korean baseball team in the 2010 Asian Games, which take place in November. If he does, and his team wins a gold medal, Choo would receive an exemption from the South Korean government. But what if Choo doesn't get that clearance or the Korean team doesn't win the gold? Well, in that case, he would have to go to his backup plan. He's not divulging what that would be, because he knows people back home are hanging on his every word. It could be that Choo would pursue citizenship in the United States. Perhaps more likely is the possibility that he would simply not return to his native land and avoid the obligation. No matter how the situation shakes out, one thing that is certain is that Choo has no plans to miss the 2011 and '12 seasons. "I try not to think about [the military obligation]," he said. Choo, coming off a solid first full season in the big leagues, went back home to Korea for 35 days this winter and enjoyed rock-star-type popularity. In November, a Korean television network ran a documentary on Choo that was shot late in the 2009 season. "A lot of people watched it," Choo said. Choo said he got emotional when he saw that, unbeknownst to him, his father had been interviewed for the documentary. His father told the story of the first time Choo and his family visited the United States after he was signed by the Mariners in 2000. The family came to Arizona, and Choo's mother complained that the weather was too hot. His father, meanwhile, looked at American and Latin players who were, in many cases, taller than Choo, and he worried that his son would struggle to adjust to the language barrier and the culture differences. "That was the first time I knew he was thinking that," Choo said of watching the documentary. "I started to cry." Choo's popularity level stateside might not be what it is currently in Korea, but that will change if he reaches his potential. He batted .300 with an .883 OPS last year, becoming the first Asian-born player to notch 20 homers and 20 stolen bases (he actually swiped 21) in a single season. After the 2010 season, Choo will be eligible for his first round of salary arbitration. It's a distinct possibility the Indians will try to work out a contract extension with him this spring to buy out his arbitration years. That would be yet another sign that Choo isn't going anywhere, regardless of his obligation back home.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.