CLEVELAND — When fans are asked who is the best player wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform, it is seemingly a slam-dunk question, a toss-up question until the tougher ones are asked.
“Joey Votto,” is the quick answer.
The man himself, Joey Votto, has a different answer.
“Shin-Soo Choo,” he says. “I’ll be chasing him my entire career. He is the type of player who challenges me. I’m very, very competitive. So when one of my teammates is playing better than me, it’s great to have some competition. He challenges me to see if I can outwork him and outplay him.”
A few weeks ago Votto asked Choo if he had ever been to a dog track. Choo said no.
“I told Choo, ‘You are my rabbit.’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘There is a rabbit out in front of the dogs and they can never catch it. You are going to be my rabbit. I might not catch you, but I’m going to be chasing you like hell.’”
Votto asked Choo the Korean word for rabbit and he said, “Tokki.” So Votto said, “You are my little tokki.”
It has evolved to the point where when one of them does something good, they put their hands atop their hands, simulating rabbit ears, and wave them at each other.
Choo laughed when asked about it and said, “Oh, yeah Joey is the Big Tokki, Jay Bruce is the Medium Tokki and I’m the Little Tokki.
Votto calls Choo almost the best player he has played with. Almost.
“He is not quite Scott Rolen, as far as an overall player, but he is not far off from being the best overall player I’ve ever played with,” Votto said. “I’ve played with a lot of great players, Brandon Phillips included, and Scott is the best, a Hall of Famer eventually. And Choo is up there, too.”
Without drawing a second breath, Votto said, “Choo is a good guy, very talented. He is out of position right now, but if you put him in right field he becomes an even better player. It is an honor to play with him and it was an extremely smart move (by the Reds) to get him.”
So is Choo what Votto expected when the trade was made?
“More,” said Votto. “He is more. From afar you play against guys and baseball is a game of failure, so you see a lot of failure. When you work with a guy on a daily basis you get to see his talents and overall ability and Choo is much more than I ever expected.”
Choo was extremely apprehensive about moving from right field, where he played in Cleveland, to playing center field and he gets better as the season progresses.
“I still work,” he said. “My personality is that I grew up thinking you are never good enough. Never. Baseball is always about getting better.
“I knew right from high school that I wanted to play baseball in the United States and knew I had to be as good as I can. That made a lot of stress for myself, put a lot of pressure on myself. That’s why I’m still working, still learning center field. I ask other good outfielders a lot of questions like, ‘How do you go on your first step, how to make better defensive plays. I’m much more comfortable now because it was very uncomfortable in spring training. I worried about making mistakes.
“I already made a huge mistake, dropping a fly ball early this season against the Cardinals that cost us a game. But I learned from that. I dropped balls a couple times, but that made me more comfortable.”
The fans in Cincinnati have adopted Choo to nearly cult hero status, calling out ‘Chooooo’ after everything he does.
“I appreciate the fans,” he said. “I’ve only played two months in Cincinnati and they call my name, really like me. I came from a different country and I’m living my dream, to play with real good players in the United States.”
And he loves his team and teammates as much as they like him.
“I like this team a lot,” Choo said. “I have good teammates who accept me. A lot of talent on this team, of course. And good guys.”