This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Salt Lake Bees' first Korean player lives alone in a downtown hotel. On a typical day, he passes time watching Korean TV shows and mentally preparing for the game.
At 25, Ji-Man Choi, the first Korean player to jump from high school to the professional ranks, mostly keeps to himself.
When he hits a slump or feels lonely, he reaches out to fellow Korean pros like Texas Rangers' outfielder Shin-Shoo Choo, who he looks to for counsel.
"We talk a lot," Choi said. "We share many common experiences, so he truly understands my situation. He knows what it means to be a Korean minor leaguer in the U.S."
Unfortunately, Choi receives little love from the fans and his peers back home in Korea. He says they have forgotten about him.
"For minor leaguers, the spotlight that we get when we first leave for the U.S. fades away very quickly," he said. "That is the sad reality of Korean minor leaguers."
Choi has played seven seasons in the minors, a career that has been defined so far by untimely injuries and a suspension for using PEDs. He still struggles with English, a problem exacerbated by the fact that there are no translators at the minor league level.
However, Choi's talent is still intriguing enough that it earned him a short stint with the parent Angels to start the season. And Bees' manager Keith Johnson is impressed with what he calls Choi's keen baseball intellect.
"He has a really good feel for the game," Johnson said. "Obviously he speaks Korean, I speak English, but the language of baseball we both understand. He has a pretty high baseball IQ."
At his peak, Choi was as good as advertised. In his debut with the Mariners' Arizona League team, Choi hit .378 with 51 hits and 23 RBIs, earning him the league's most valuable player award.
Then, five seasons into his minor league career, Choi suffered an unexpected setback a 50-game suspension for using a banned substance that was soon coupled with a fractured fibula suffered during the first spring training game in 2015. By November, Choi packed his bags after signing a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles. Despite showing promise, Choi was left exposed to the Rule V Draft, which led him to the Angels.
Choi is now a minor league journeyman with elite bat speed and good size at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds who has played at every position from catcher to first base to the outfield. Through 37 games with the Bees, Choi is hitting .324 with four homers and 24 RBIs.
"He plays the game the right way; he does a lot of good things in the batter's box, which adds to his value," Johnson said. "He's doing a really good job as far as his maturity level of understanding the game and not worrying about all the outside distractions … going about his business in the right way."
Learning English isn't a high priority anymore, and he doesn't respond to questions about his PED suspension. Instead, Choi is solely focused on getting the call back up to the big leagues.
Choi did get a taste when he was called up to the big club in early April. There he got a preview of what could be all the trappings of the sport at its major league level, and playing in a city with a big Korean population. He even had a translator.
Then in May, Choi was sent down to Salt Lake, where he has been ever since. But now he knows he has a chance.
"In a way, seven years is a long time," Choi said. "It is a waiting game. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself. Maybe it was greed from my part. However, after I had a stint in the majors, I sort of learned to enjoy every moment because I proved to myself that I am good enough to play in the majors."