South Korea and Japan have long been archrivals in sports, and the history isn't lost on Texas Rangers' Korean outfielder Choo Shin-soo.
The Rangers' division rivals, Los Angeles Angels, acquired two-way Japanese star Shohei Ohtani this offseason. An MVP-winning pitcher who also displayed impressive power at the plate in Japan, Ohtani has been among the most talked-about players before even playing his first Major League Baseball (MLB) game.
The two clubs will meet each other 19 times in the American League West in 2018. And Choo said he can't wait to see the hyped-up 23-year-old.
"Since we're in the same division, I'll try my best to beat him if we face each other," Choo told reporters at Incheon International Airport on Friday, after arriving home to spend some time with his family.
"I've never seen him play in person but I've heard a lot about him from other Japanese players," Choo added. "As a fellow Asian player, I wish him the best in the United States. Maybe things won't be so easy for him in America as they were in Japan. But he's a talented player and I think he'll do just fine."
Choo himself had a bounceback year after an injury-plagued 2016 season, when he was limited to just 49 games while making four trips to the disabled list.
In 2017, Choo played in 149 games and matched his career-high with 22 home runs. Choo also had 78 RBIs and scored 96 runs, while batting .261/.357/.423.
Choo now has three seasons left on his seven-year US$130 million deal with the Rangers. He will turn 36 next July.
Choo hasn't quite lived up to his massive deal, having missed significant time in both 2014 and 2016 seasons with injuries. He has also been subject to some trade speculation this offseason.
Choo insisted he has done the best he could in his healthy seasons with the Rangers.
"Personal stats are important, but I'd love to win a championship before my contract runs out," Choo said. "For next year, the goal is to win the (World Series) title."
Choo has been playing in the majors since 2005. He's a rare breed among Korean players who signed with a U.S. club out of high school and moved up the minor league ladder.
In recent years, some position players made their jump to the major leagues after putting in a few years in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), the top pro competition here. But those players haven't lasted very long. This offseason alone, infielder Park Byung-ho and outfielder Kim Hyun-soo have returned to the KBO after two years in America, and infielder Hwang Jae-gyun came home after just one year in the U.S. Choo is now the only Korean-born position player in the bigs, with Pittsburgh Pirates' infielder Kang Jung-ho still in limbo following his drunk driving conviction.
Choo said he understands fans' frustration at seeing these homegrown stars fail to make it in the majors, and he could also relate to what those players went through.
"It's usually more difficult for Korean players to get opportunities than Japanese players," Choo said. "And it's also not easy to make an impression in such limited opportunities. I know fans must have been disappointed but the players themselves must have found it hard to swallow, too."
As for players trying to take their crack at MLB, Choo said, "I think they should be as thoroughly prepared as possible." (Yonhap)