Over the past month, there has been a wave of discussions around baseball about what it means to play baseball the right way. In the wake of MLB’s campaign to “Let the Kid’s Play” came Tim Anderson’s now-notorious bat flip, and the explosion of thought pieces that followed.
Is stoicism and emotionless resolve — the way of the old guard — how baseball is meant to be played? Or is it meant to be played with a cocky enthusiasm, with bat flips and glove spikes and overt, in-your-face antics that make it, dare I say, more fun to watch?
I would like to present a third option.
I think baseball should be played the Ji-Man Choi way.
Choi, who was a largely under-the-radar player for much of his career, managed to have a quietly incredible season in 2018 with the Rays. He wasn’t with the club for the full year, joining in mid-June with the trade of Brad Miller, but a move south was apparently just what the doctor ordered for Choi, who hit .269/.370/.506 with the Rays and managed a full season wRC+ of 135. He hit eight home runs with the Rays that season, and it was perhaps his September 10th walkoff that solidified Choi’s place in the hearts of Rays fans.
Watch that clip closely, because it’s easy to only remember how it ends: with a dance and a flurry of excitement at home plate as Choi greets his teammates in a cluster of triumph. The play — a game-winning walk-off blast — is as worthy of a bat-flip as any I’ve ever seen. Instead, Choi calmly rounded the first three bases without showing a single ounce of pleasure or emotion. It wasn’t until the last 90 feet of his round trip that the joy came out and he ran home to meet his teammates.
There was no gloating, only celebration. He didn’t make it about his one-on-one victory against Brad Hand. Instead the show of emotion came only when his own club could see it. Choi proves that you can be both stoic and emotional. Both staid and enthusiastic. There is room in baseball for both.
We see this time and time again in the 2019 season. Choi, currently hitting .256/.349/.411 isn’t quite at the same powerhouse levels as last season. He has battled with a calf injury this season, perhaps limiting what he’s been able to do thusfar, but he’s also still a 109 wRC+ player, almost right in line with the 111 wRC+ Steamer projection for the year. And none of that does for one second dulls the sheer joy of watching him play.
Choi just throws himself into play. It’s very clear in watching him that he takes the game seriously. He’s there to win, he’s there to help his team. You can tell he’s playing for the absolute love of it, because it shows every time he takes the field.
Choi is one of only five active major league players from South Korea, something that has drawn Korean baseball fans to him in the US, and also potentially something that feeds into his style of play. I asked FanGraphs resident KBO expert Sung Min Kim about the way baseball is played in South Korea, and if the same kind of restrained expectations existed among their players.
“The league has its own unwritten rules for sure but it doesn’t have to do much with bat flips and other ways of showing emotions,” Kim explained. “KBO is a much smaller league and, therefore, players are much more tight-knit all around the league so they like to try to avoid any problem as much as possible. The unwritten rule has more to do with seniority (basically, how the older players are respected, how younger players are expected to act, etc.)”
Choi himself never played in the KBO, but growing up in South Korea as a baseball fan and youth player was certainly exposed to the game and aware of its culture, the way kids watching MLB growing up know you never talk about a no-hitter in progress.
He played U12 and U18 baseball for the Korean national teams, and is a rare example of a Korean amateur prospect to find success in the majors without any history in the KBO.
Ultimately, Ji-Man Choi has created the perfect balance of the two baseball cultures he has been exposed to in his life. In watching the KBO there is the element of respectfulness, and in MLB the element of treading lightly when it comes to rubbing your victory in the face of others.
In the middle of all this, as well, there is just Ji-Man Choi the individual, a man who overtly delights in celebrating with his teammates, but never at the expense of a competitor.
Choi is fun. He dances on basepaths and in the dugout. He makes goofy faces as often as he makes good catches. He plays the game in a way that seeks to heighten its most positive elements: fun, athleticism, power, excitement.
At the end of the day, Choi has established his own unique way of doing things, and it might just be the best way to play that I’ve ever seen.
Let the kids play, indeed.