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06/22/09 1:10 PM ET

Big league Choo: Korean on the rise

Tribe outfielder committed to always improving his game

CLEVELAND -- Baseball heroes are hard to come by in Korea.

Joe DiMaggio? Ted Williams? Willie Mays?

Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo doesn't know a thing about any of them.

Choo did see a movie about Babe Ruth once. Sometime around middle school. Asked what he learned about Ruth, Choo broke it down simply.

"He plays baseball, he drinks a lot, he smokes cigarettes and he likes girls," Choo said with a big smile. "He does everything, but still hits!"

Choo got into baseball not because he grew up watching or reading about the Major League greats. He was more interested in a Korean Baseball Organization second baseman by the name of Jong-Tae Park. In the 1990s, Park, a member of the Lotte Giants, was a five-time Gold Glove winner and a two-time All Star Game MVP.

Park also happens to be Choo's uncle.

"He was a really good player," Choo said. "I watched him play baseball all the time. I'd go to the stadium and watch him hit. Every day, I went to the stadium. And I said, 'OK, I want to play baseball.'"

While MLB history might not resonate with young Koreans, those who take up the game do so with a passion and dedication that is unmatched in the States. Choo was one of thousands of Koreans who attended a high school that doubled as a baseball academy. After attending classes in the morning, Choo and his classmates were on the field early in the afternoon. Baseball was not recreation; it was a potential profession that was taken very seriously.

"We have more focus on the job," Choo said of these students. "You can't do anything else if you don't make it."

Trouble is, not many Koreans have made it in the Major Leagues, especially in recent years. And the sport's waning popularity in South Korea, despite a gold medal in last summer's Beijing Olympic Games, has led to the closing of many of those schools.

Choo, however, has ascended to the bigs and become a fixture in the Tribe's outfield. He expects nothing less of himself.

In fact, Choo expects quite a bit more. He said he approaches the game with extra motivation because of the expectations instilled in him by his father, So-Mien, who was an amateur boxer and swimmer.

"He taught me that you should always be No. 1," Choo said. "Not No. 2 or No. 3. In sports, everybody remembers the first guy. Like when Ichiro wins the batting title, nobody remembers who was second."

Last year, after he missed the first two months of the season while recovering from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, Choo put up monster numbers that are certainly memorable. He hit .343 with 11 homers, 48 RBIs and a 1.038 OPS in 58 games in the second half of the season.

This year, Choo got off to a more realistic start and he's had some rough moments in the outfield. But he continues to be a run-producer in the middle of the order and, all things considered, has been one of the few bright spots on the last-place Tribe, batting .295 with nine doubles, 41 RBIs and an .862 OPS.

But when Choo assesses his 2009 season, to this point, he's somewhat disappointed. Asked to grade his season on a scale of 1 to 10, he offered up a 5.

"I'm trying to get to an 11," he said. "If at the end of the season, I'm hitting .300 with 30 homers and 120 RBIs, the next year, I want to be better than that. This year, I have too many strikeouts, and I want to do better with runners in scoring position."

Those watching Choo are a little more glowing about his accomplishments.

"He's a good player, period," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's one of the most underrated players in the league. He has a good arm, he runs well, he runs hard, he has power, he's a good hitter. He's one of the best-kept secrets in the league right there."

And to his Tribe teammates, Choo is an excellent source of comic relief. Last year, a fan sent him a song called "Nobody" by The Wonder Girls, a South Korean girl group. Choo began playing the song for his teammates, who loved it. The song now plays when the Indians take batting practice at Progressive Field.

"The song says, 'I want nobody but you,'" Choo said. "But it sounds like they're saying, 'I want nobody but Choo!' I like it. It gives me an energy boost."

Are the Wonder Girls big fans of Choo?

"Maybe," he said with a laugh. "I don't know. They're really young. I don't think they know baseball."

Well, they might know Babe Ruth.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.