GOODYEAR, AZ – The game is about people. Too often we forget that, obsessing over statistics, complaining about contracts, demanding trades and firings and better performances from our favorite clubs.
That’s all part of baseball in the 21st century, all part of what makes the game great. But every so often, you get a reminder. You hear about something like outfielder Shin-Soo Choo’s farewell note to Chris Antonetti, and you remember just how deep the bonds run in baseball, even — on occasion — between a player and general manager.
Antonetti was the Cleveland Indians assistant GM when the team acquired Choo from the Seattle Mariners for Ben Broussard and cash on July 26, 2006. And Antonetti was the GM who traded Choo and infielder Jason Donald to the Cincinnati Reds last Dec. 11 as part of a three-team, nine-player deal with Arizona. (The Indians received outfielder Drew Stubbs from the Reds and pitchers Trevor Bauer, Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw from the Diamondbacks).
Most players, upon learning they’ve been traded, exchange a few words with club officials, then hang up the phone and go on their way. Choo, on the other hand, sent Antonetti a moving letter — a letter that he was willing to share with FOXSports.com as long as Antonetti approved, which he did.
Choo, a native of Pusan, South Korea, wrote his letter in English.
He began, “After the trade … so many things are running through my mind … Six years ago … From the time I first arrived in Cleveland, all the way up til now… From Seattle, where I had no chance of playing … to the Cleveland Indians, where I was finally given a great chance to be an everyday player.
“I want you to know that my family and I will always be thankful for this opportunity and want you to know how much I will remember the chance I was given in Cleveland … Because I firmly believe that without this opportunity, there is no Shin-Soo Choo and I would not be remembered.”
There is more, plenty more. But first, some background:
Choo, 30, could not have been surprised that the Indians traded him; he’s entering his free-agent year and is represented by Scott Boras, who prefers his clients to establish their values on the open market. The Indians, knowing they had little chance to sign Choo long term, invested in free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn instead.
No, the surprising part about all this was that the Reds said immediately that they wanted to move Choo from right to center field.
Choo has played only 83 career innings in center, none since 2009. Advanced metrics portray him as well below-average in right last season, though he fares better over a three-year analysis.
“As soon I heard about the trade, I was excited,” Choo said. “I was losing my old teammates, but it was a great opportunity to play in the playoffs and maybe the World Series.
“Then to have to play center field, I just said, ‘Whoa.’ When I got traded, I thought, ‘Jay Bruce plays right field. So, where am I going?’ They said center field. I said, ‘Really?’ I was pretty shocked.”
Initially, many speculated that the Reds could move Bruce to center if Choo could not handle the transition. Bruce, however, said he has yet to take a flyball in center during spring drills.
The Reds, at least for the moment, seem committed to Choo in center. Indeed, they’ve already noticed something that the Indians knew from the start.
How much Choo cares.
“He wants to do it — that’s very important,” said former Reds center fielder Eric Davis, a special assistant with the club who is instructing the team’s outfielders with first-base coach Billy Hatcher this spring. “You get somebody who doesn’t want to move, they’re not going to put forth the effort. He embraced it.”
Now back to Choo’s letter:
“I know that baseball is a business,” Choo wrote to Antonetti, “… but whenever I would see you in the clubhouse … and see the emotional strain on your face … I would feel really bad … I would even say to myself, ‘Let’s try harder and make a great team.’ And I tried really hard for you … but unfortunately, the players just weren’t able to answer your emotional call.
“Now that I have been traded, I have so many things I feel bad about … but I firmly believe that Cleveland will change for the better. You have a lot of young and talented players … but most importantly … players that will listen and follow your leadership … As a result, I know you will get great performances and results in the near future.”
Choo, in his six-plus seasons with the Indians, batted .292 with an .853 OPS. The Reds believe that his production out of the leadoff spot will more than compensate for any deficiencies he may have in center. Still, Choo is not likely to establish the same roots in Cincinnati that he did in Cleveland.
Billy Hamilton, who had a combined 155 stolen bases in the minors last season, is the Reds’ future in center, perhaps as soon as next season. Choo and the Reds, after discussing a multi-year deal, settled on a one-year, $7.375 million contract, avoiding arbitration.
Thus, the outcome should be fairly obvious.
Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick is under club control through 2014, Bruce through 2017. Choo, if he has a big season, likely will price himself out of Cincinnati. But right now, his position change is the only concern for all involved.
“I see a very intelligent, smart baseball player, a student of the game,” Davis said. “I think his transition will be easy. It’s just a matter of him learning the hitters in our division. And the more reps you see with them, the better reads you’ll get. He’s quicker than he looks, and he has great footwork.
“If you have the footwork and the ability to track the baseball — and he has great instincts … (then) center field is all anticipation and reaction. His anticipation is excellent.”
Choo said, “I’ll try the best I can, then they’ll make a decision,” indicating that a switch with Bruce is still possible. Manager Dusty Baker, though, made a point of noting that judging an outfielder in Arizona is difficult, due to the trying conditions.
The high sky, Baker said, is, “terrible.” And the dimensions at Goodyear Ballpark (410 feet to center, 380 to the alleys) are bigger than they are at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati (404 to center, 379 to left-center, 370 to right-center).
GABP, in fact, is one of the smaller outfields in the majors — something that should help Choo, assuming he survives Arizona.
“You not only have high skies, you have sun, wind on occasion and you’ve got a big outfield, bigger than most places,” Baker said.
“You’ll see guys every day losing balls. We’re going to wait. We’re going to give (Choo) a chance. We’re not going to judge him every time he doesn’t catch a ball. That’s not what a chance is about.”
No, a chance is about the kind of opportunity that the Indians gave Choo after acquiring him in ’06, and a connection that remained strong even through two arbitration negotiations and several injuries, including Tommy John surgery in ’07.
In the end, a trade of Choo became inevitable, but it didn’t alter his perception of his time in Cleveland, nor the Indians’ perception of him.
The game is about people.
Antonetti, calling Choo a “special guy,” said the outfielder’s farewell note to him was “very thoughtful and very heartfelt … really appreciated.”
“I am going to miss everyone within the organization … from the trainers who have watched over and taken care of me … to the clubhouse personnel,” Choo wrote.
“With that said and even though physically we are parting ways, everyone will always be in my heart and will always be in my thoughts and memory.”