Mookie Betts and Corey Seager may be the biggest stars of the postseason, but the darling of October has been Ji-Man Choi, the baby-faced Tampa Bay Rays first baseman whose hamstring-defying acrobatics around the bag, effervescent smile and ultra-cool first name have endeared him to fans across the country.
“Ji-Man Choi is the man,” Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow said. “What you see on TV is what you get. There’s a lot of stuff he does that is iconic and funny.”
Some of the stuff Choi does seem to push the limits of kinesiology.
Choi is a stout 6 foot 1 and 260 pounds, but he has a Gumby-like ability to twist and contort his body to make plays like he did in Game 3 on Friday night, when he leaped high and down the line for errant throws from infielders and applied tags on Seager in the fourth inning and Betts in the eighth for outs.
But his most astonishing play that night — and one he has made countless times this month and gained the most acclaim for — was when he did the splits while stretching for shortstop Willy Adames’ one-hop throw on Betts’ game-opening grounder.
“Doing the splits is fun, but it’s very painful at the same time,” said Choi, speaking through an interpreter. “A lot of people think I’m a gymnast instead of a baseball player, but that’s a credit to all the hard work I’ve done throughout the offseason and here during practice.”
Choi, 29, is the rare player from South Korea who bypassed the Korean Baseball Organization, signing with the Seattle Mariners at age 19 in 2009.
He did not play well enough in six injury-plagued minor league seasons to warrant a big league promotion and signed with Baltimore as a minor league free agent after the 2015 season. .
But the Orioles did not add Choi to their 40-man roster, and 2½ weeks later, the Angels selected Choi, then 25, in the Rule 5 draft. The Angels thought Choi would provide a left-handed bat capable of producing an on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the .750 range, while playing first base, left field and designated hitter.
Choi hit only .170 with a .611 OPS, five homers and 12 RBIs in 54 games in 2016 and was at least a partial victim of bad luck with a .173 batting average on balls in play, which turned out to be a career low. But his quirky personality and sense of humor began to emerge in Anaheim.
Choi went hitless in three at-bats with two strikeouts in a three-game series at Milwaukee in early May 2016, during which he claimed he was visited by a ghost in his bed at the supposedly haunted Pfister Hotel. Asked by MLB.com how he slept his first night in Milwaukee, Choi said, “Oh, not good, not good.”
After Choi hit his first big-league homer, against the Texas Rangers in a July 18 game, the Angels gave the rookie the traditional silent treatment when Choi returned to the dugout.
Choi played right along with the prank, high-fiving and low-fiving imaginary teammates as he walked the entire length of the dugout before his teammates mobbed him.
On the field, Choi was not about to supplant Albert Pujols at first base, and he was not deemed athletic enough to be an everyday outfielder, so the Angels allowed him to walk as a free agent.
Choi signed with the New York Yankees in 2017 but played only six games in the big leagues that season. A 2018 stint with Milwaukee didn’t go much better — Choi hit .233 with two homers and five RBIs in 12 games for the Brewers before being traded to Tampa Bay that June for utility infielder Brad Miller and cash.
Choi showed encouraging signs in the second half of 2018, batting .269 with an .877 OPS, eight homers and 27 RBIs in 49 games for the Rays.
That winter, Choi started practicing Pilates and put a greater emphasis on strength and conditioning and flexibility. He had a breakout 2019, batting .261 with an .822 OPS, 19 homers and 63 RBIs in 127 games.
“The reason I started focusing on my flexibility is I got injured a lot in the minor leagues,” Choi said. “I think flexibility is the key part in any sports. So I try to be more flexible, hoping it will help me sustain full, healthy seasons.”
Choi hit .230 with a .741 OPS, three homers, 16 RBIs, 36 strikeouts and 20 walks in 42 games in a platoon role this season, and he’s had a solid postseason, batting .263 (10 for 38) with an .864 OPS, two homers, one double and four RBIs entering Game 6 against the Dodgers on Tuesday night.
Choi did not start in Games 4 and 5, but he drew a key pinch-hit walk off reliever Blake Treinen ahead of Brandon Lowe’s three-run homer in the sixth inning of Tampa Bay’s 8-7 Game 4 win.
He is expected to start against Dodgers right-hander Tony Gonsolin Tuesday night and right-hander Walker Buehler if the series extends to Game 7 Wednesday.
“Ji-Man, give him a lot of credit, he’s been through a lot in his career,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s been in different organizations, was probably being taught multiple things about hitting or defense or whatever. By the time we acquired him, I think he learned that the best version of himself is to be himself.”
That version of Choi has become a fan favorite in Tampa Bay and one of the most popular players in his clubhouse.
“He’s always smiling, always cracking jokes, having a great time, dancing during batting practice,” Rays outfielder Hunter Renfroe said. “I think the fans really love and embrace guys who look like they’re having fun and go all-out during the game. I think he does that with the best of them.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.