02/29/12 8:03 PM EST
Army training offers Choo needed perspective
Rigorous stint in home country helps Tribe outfielder clear mind
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
"Fifty-five pounds," Choo said. "It was just walking, but it was hard on your shoulders."
The same sentiment can be applied to the past year of Choo's life.
His country celebrated Choo as a hero during his rise from homegrown star to Major League outfielder. His popularity and existence as a role model took a considerable hit when he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol last May. Choo heard the backlash in Korea and his mind became clouded with negative thoughts.
Choo had only known success.
He had a hard time handling letting people down in two parts of the world.
"I think last year he learned that he can't put his whole country on his back," Indians manager Manny Acta said.
Choo is adamant that he has a clear mind heading into the coming season. On top of that, Cleveland's right fielder is healthy and 20 pounds lighter -- partially the result of his unique training experience in Korea. In order to finalize his exemption from required military service, Choo had to take part in a four-week basic training program with the South Korean army.
All Korean men are obligated to serve in the military for two years before they turn 30 years old. Choo became exempt by helping South Korea capture the gold medal in the Asian Games two winters ago.
Choo was not sure what to expect when he arrived for his training.
"I really didn't want to go," Choo said. "But after I went for the four weeks -- wow. It was hard. I'm used to a lot of hard training, but this was a different type. It made me think how easy it is to play baseball, how easy my life is."
Choo arrived in South Korea in November and spent seven weeks in his country visiting his parents and his younger brother, along with plenty of others. When he showed up to the training camp in December, he was among a group of roughly 200 Korean men of varying ages. Their daily wake-up call was at 6 a.m., and the first order of business was to sing.
"Our national anthem," Choo said.
Each week consisted of different drills. Choo practiced how to shoot a rifle and then scored 16 out of 20 on a target test.
"I was scared the first time," Choo said. "It was so loud, but I shot a couple of times and then I started to feel better about it."
A smirk then crept across Choo's face.
"I told the guys to watch out," he joked as he motioned to some of his Indians teammates.
Choo was also trained in the art of throwing grenades.
That was one activity he enjoyed.
"I threw really well," he said with a smile. "It's pretty similar in weight to a baseball, but a little smaller. I threw really hard the first time. They said, 'We know you're a baseball player, but don't throw it hard.'
"As soon as it comes out of your hands, it'll explode in like four or five seconds. So if you throw it too quick, somebody will grab it and throw it back at you."
Twice a week, Choo's unit -- a grouping of around 50 men -- would get into uniform, put on a 55-pound backpack and walk for 15 miles. Beyond the stamina gained for his body, there was also ample time for Choo to think about his life.
As he looked at the men around him, Choo began to gain a new perspective.
"It was an emotional thing," Choo said. "I thought back to 25 years ago when I started playing baseball. Good times. Bad times. All those things were on my mind and then it all cleared. Last year happened. The injuries. Everything else. I've thrown all that away.
"At the end of it, I thought about how lucky I am. I love this job. I love baseball and the best baseball in the world is in the Major Leagues. I have a beautiful family. I'm healthy. I have great wife -- a beautiful wife -- and great kids."
Choo came to camp this spring with a constant reminder of his family on the inside of his right forearm. Within an intricate design of a new tattoo, Choo has the initials of his wife, Won Mi Ha, and his three children, Alan, Aiden and Abigail.
He said he plans on focusing on only baseball at the ballpark and his family off the field.
Last season, a broken left thumb and a left oblique injury limited the 29-year-old Choo to 85 games. When he was in the lineup, the left-handed-hitting right fielder hit .259 with eight home runs and 36 RBIs, marking the worst showing of his career. He hit .300 with at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in each of the previous two years.
The DUI arrest outside Cleveland in early May only added insult to injury. Choo got swept up in the coverage coming out of South Korea and finally decided that enough was enough. He finally realized that the best approach was to stop listening and reading the things that were being said about him from afar.
With a cleansed mind, Choo believes he is poised to bounce back in 2012.
"Before last year, I always went up, went up, got better, better, better," Choo said. "I built up my baseball life and I built up my image in Korea. Everybody talked nice. Now, it's different. I worried about that. Last year, I worried too much about what other people said about me. Now, I'm not worried about it.
"I just do my job. After baseball, I'll go home to my family. I'll come to the ballpark, think about my teammates and baseball -- how we can win. That's it."
And Choo is convinced that Cleveland can win.
Even with a pile of injuries a year ago, the Indians saw an 11-win improvement over 2010 and finished in second place in the American League Central. This spring, Choo looks around the clubhouse and sees a young team, but one with the potential to push for a spot in the postseason.
"I know we don't have someone like Albert Pujols," Choo said. "We don't have big, big, big, big superstars, but we have a really good all-around team. We can run, we can hit, throw, play defense. We can do all of that. Health is the most important thing.
"The goal is always to make the playoffs. That's why we're here. We can. We can do it -- make the playoffs. No doubt about it."
Having Choo in an improved state of mind is a good place to start.
"My mind is clear," he said. "Everything went away."