Pitcher holds onto big league dreams

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Pitcher holds onto big league dreams

Most players who spend two decades in professional baseball have post-retirement plans. But that’s not the case for Choi Hyang-nam, 38, who is well past his prime but still chasing after his dream of playing in the major leagues in the United States.

Choi returned to Korea on Nov. 21 after completing the season with the Albuquerque Isotopes, a Los Angeles Dodgers Triple-A affiliate. After spending two days in his hometown of Shinan, South Jeolla, Choi came to Seoul and has been training on his own since.

Choi is currently a free agent. A player must usually play for six years to become a free agent in the American minor league system, but Choi inked a deal with the Isotopes in May that will free him up at the end of the season. In 2006, he signed his first minor league contract with a Cleveland Indians minor league affiliate without such a clause, and it played out unfavorably for the veteran pitcher. He had over 15 years of experience as a pitcher in the KBO but got treated like a newly drafted rookie. In 2006, he posted eight wins and five losses and struck out 103 for an ERA of 2.37 in his first season in the U.S. with the Buffalo Bisons.

They’re not great numbers, but good enough for a call up from the Indians. His contract prevented that from happening.

Choi started his professional career with his hometown team the Haitai Tigers in 1990. He was never a dominating pitcher but always reliable. His best season in the KBO was in 1998, when he posted 12 wins and 12 losses with an 3.63 ERA for the LG Twins.

This year, Choi completed a successful season with nine wins, two losses, an ERA of 2.34 and 77 strikeouts in over 57 innings pitched.

“At the end of the season, Albuquerque said they would like to have me back next season,” stated Choi.

The Kansas City Royals showed interest, but the move never materialized. And despite his strong showing in the minors, he likely won’t get a call up from the Dodgers either. The Dodgers bullpen posted the lowest ERA in the National League this past season. If Choi had been pitching for a minor league affiliate of a National League team with a weak bullpen such as the Washington Nationals or the Pittsburgh Pirates, Choi might have realized his dream of pitching in the majors.

“The Dodgers’ bullpen had a really good showing this past season,” said Choi.

Choi doesn’t have a lot of opportunities left. He is getting older, and, according to himself, has topped out at 86 miles (138 kilometers) per hour. That’s not the speed major league teams seek, but what is impressive about Choi is his control and ability to get the opposing batters out. Last season, the savvy veteran held opposing batters to a .236 batting average.

“I get asked if it’s tough playing in the minors at my age, but this is a time to be patient and thankful for the chance,” Choi said. “The pitchers on 40-man MLB rosters have a lot of velocity but lack consistent control. I don’t think there is a pitcher in the minor leagues who can beat me.”

By Choi Min-gyu [jason@joongang.co.kr]
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