Mookie Betts and Corey Seager may be the biggest stars of the postseason, but the darling of this October has been Ji-Man Choi, the baby-faced Tampa Bay Rays first baseman whose hamstring-defying, acrobatic moves around the bag, effervescent smile and ultra-cool name have endeared him to fans across the country.
“Ji-Man Choi is the man,” Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who will start Game 5 on Sunday night, said before Game 4. “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 he does stretches the imagination. Choi is a stout 6-foot-1, 260-pounds but has a Gumby-like ability to twist and contort his body to make plays like he did Friday night, when he leaped for high throws from infielders up the line and applied tags on Seager in the fourth inning and Betts in the eighth for outs.
But his most astonishing play in Game 3 — and the one he has gained the most acclaim for this season — 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,” Choi, speaking through an interpreter, said before Game 4. “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 to sign 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 was selected by the Angels in the 2015 Rule 5 draft.
Choi hit .170 with five homers and 12 RBIs in 54 games in Anaheim in 2016 but wasn’t about to supplant Albert Pujols at first base. He was released and spent 2017 and 2018 playing sparingly for the Yankees, Brewers and Rays, who acquired him in a mid-season trade in 2018.
Choi started practicing Pilates and put a greater emphasis on strength, conditioning and flexibility. He had a breakout 2019, hitting .261 with an .822 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 19 homers and 63 RBIs in 127 games.
He hit .230 with a .741 OPS, three homers and 16 RBIs in 42 games in a platoon role this season and has had a solid postseason, batting .263 with an .839 OPS, two homers and four RBIs entering Saturday.
“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.