CINCINNATI — A procession of six Asian media people paraded through the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse, headed for Shin-Soo Choo’s locker, and Brandon Phillips shouted, “Look, a Choo-Choo train. There goes the Choo-Choo train.”
Choo is, indeed, a cult hero in his native South Korea and hardly a day goes by that he isn’t standing in front of his locker conducting interviews in Korean.
And he is fast becoming a cult hero in Cincinnati, where fans chant, “Choooooooo, Choooooooo” whenever the Reds’ center fielder does something positive, which usually is two or three times a game as the team’s leadoff hitter.
On Monday, the Reds begin a four-game series with the Cleveland Indians, two in Cincinnati and two in Cleveland, the team from which Choo was acquired in the off-season.
The 30-year-old Choo is excited about facing his former team, a team for which he holds no grudges for trading him. Choo sent Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti a heart-tugging letter after the trade, thanking him for all the Tribe did for him.
“I’ll be excited to see all my old teammates here in Cincinnati and even more excited when we go back to Cleveland (Wednesday and Thursday),” Choo said. “I made a lot of friends with parking lot attendants and security people and it will be great to see them again.”
One person who is excited to see Choo in a Cincinnati uniform is Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo. When Choo played for the Indians, he feasted on Cincinnati pitching and Arroyo was usually a gourmet meal for him — four home runs and a bundle of doubles and singles.
“He talked to me about that during spring training,” Choo said. “He said he was happy to see me in his uniform. That’s baseball, though. There are pitchers who get me all the time and pitchers who I get all the time.”
For the Reds, he is hitting .288 with a team-leading nine home runs, 37 runs, 19 RBI and a take-some-for-the team 12 hit by pitches, tops in the majors. And he has reached base at least once in 43 of his 47 games.
Choo’s Cleveland memories are of early team success and a quick fade, and he said, “The last three or four years there we had good first halves, then we fell down the second half. But they have a better team this year, it looks like. I hope they keep playing well.”
Choo paused for a moment, realizing what he said, and added quickly, “Except for next week when they play us. Who knows, maybe we’ll see them in the World Series.”
The four games also will see Choo in Cincinnati’s outfield and Drew Stubbs in Cleveland’s outfield — Stubbs was the player the Reds traded for Choo.
“I said hi to him in spring training,” said Choo. “Told him good luck. He is a great player and I watched him when I was with the Indians. I know he is a really, really good player. I was pretty surprised I was traded for him.”
So Choo is humble, too, because so far the Reds have enjoyed the advantage in the deal.
Choo said he hasn’t kept in touch much with his former teammates, “Because I’m not really a text guy. I sent a text once to catcher Lou Marson when he played against Tampa Bay and got hit hard at home plate and I asked, ‘Are you OK?’ I do follow the Indians and check their stats to see how they all are doing.”
A surprising thing about Choo is that he is a conventional-style American-type hitter. Many Asians, like Ichiro Suzuki, are slap hitters — almost on the run toward first base when they swing. Or they have a high front leg lift before their swing.
Choo said he never was slap-and-run, but he did have the high leg kick when he played in Korea.
“When I came to the States (2001 with the Seattle Mariners) I had the high leg kick,” he said. “But in the minors I saw that the fastballs were not only 95 to 100 miles an your, they had a lot of movement. And they threw a lot of change-ups. It threw my timing off so I had to change. I was only 18 in the minors so I eventually changed my style to more like American style.”
Choo said most Japanese players who come to America go right to the majors and it is too late to change their styles, but he had nearly five years in the minors to adjust.
The other amazing thing about Choo is that he mostly pitched in South Korea, throwing above 90 — and his lethal, accurate arm in the outfield reflects that.
When the Mariners signed him, Choo thought it was to be a pitcher. How wrong he was.
“I signed with Seattle, thinking it was to be a pitcher,” said Choo. “But they surprised me and said, ‘No more pitching. You are going to be a position player. You have a lot of talent — power, speed and we can make you an outfielder with a lot of work on defense.’ They told me I had all five things (a five-tool player).”
The Mariners recognized that he had all the tools to be an every-day player, and Choo insisted his first couple of years he was not a good hitter in the minors.
When the Mariners told him their grand plan, Choo said he shrugged his shoulders and said, “OK. I’ll try a couple of years to see if it works. If it doesn’t, I’ll go back to pitching. That’s easy for me.”
He has never thrown a pitch on American soil.
He hit better than .300 his first two years in the minors and said, “But I struck out all the time — usually about two times a game. A lot of strikeouts.”
He still has his share of strikeouts, probably too many for a leadoff hitter (he mostly batted third in Cleveland), but he takes walks and does what he is supposed to do by getting on base. His .438 on-base average is second-best in the National League, behind teammate Joey Votto’s .480.