SSG Landers’ Ji-hoon Choi has had a particularly difficult year. His grades dropped and he had to say goodbye to his moral support Kim Kang-min.
A graduate of Gwangju First High School and Dongguk University, Choi started his professional career with the SK Wyverns (now SSG Landers) with the 30th overall pick in the second round of the 2020 KBO Rookie Draft. In his third year as a professional, Choi played in all 144 games last season and had a career-high season, batting .304 with 10 home runs, 61 RBI, 93 runs scored, 31 stolen bases and an OPS of .789. It was his first triple-digit batting average and double-digit home runs.굿모닝토토
He also played in all six games of the Korean Series against the Kiwoom Heroes, batting .227 with five doubles, one home run, two RBIs, four runs scored, and an OPS of .625 to help them win the Wire-to-Wire League title and the overall championship.
These performances led to a call-up to the national team. Choi earned his first senior national team cap in March when he was named to the World Baseball Classic (WBC) squad. He was selected as a replacement for Choi Ji-Man and appeared in three games in the first round of the WBC. He batted .667 with two doubles, one triple, four RBIs, and a 1.467 OPS.
Choi has been SSG’s starting center fielder this season as well. Perhaps fresh off his WBC appearance, Choi looked to continue his momentum from last season with a 0.352 batting average in April, but started to struggle in May (0.217). In July alone, his batting average plummeted to .182. However, he rebounded in August and came alive in September with a .317 average.
He competed in the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. Choi Ji-hoon, the most senior member of the Yankees, won a gold medal in six games, batting .524 with 11 doubles, one home run, five RBIs, six runs scored and a 1.209 OPS.
After finishing the season with 124 hits, two home runs, 30 RBIs, 65 runs scored, and a .268 batting average with a .672 OPS, Choi was immediately called upon to play fall ball for the team. In two semi-playoff games with the NC Dinos, he batted just .200 (1-for-5).
It didn’t end there. After the season, he earned his third tricolor of the year when he was named to the Asian Professional Baseball Championship (APBC) 2023 team in Tokyo, Japan. After going hitless in 11 at-bats in the three group games, he recorded his first hit of the tournament in his second at-bat of the final against Japan. Unfortunately, South Korea lost to Japan and finished as runners-up.
At the 2023 Magumagoo RealGlove Awards, Choi said, “I don’t usually tell people that I’m struggling. But this year, I want to tell you that I struggled,” he said.
The reason for this change of heart was a book given to him by a fan.
“I think I got it before I left for APBC. A fan gave me a book. It was a book that really resonated with me this year. I read it in my hostel in Japan, and I read it on the bus while traveling,” he said, adding, “In a way, it’s a little hard to love yourself in the job that I do. It’s like getting a report card every day. I got a couple hits today, I made a couple mistakes, and you get that 144 times a year, so there were more days where I was criticizing myself than praising myself, but reading this book helped me love myself, and it helped me pick myself up when my self-esteem was low.”
Furthermore, the fact that his performance dropped so low this year, right after his career-high season last year, was very stressful.
“Compared to the beginning of the season, I lost 10 kilograms of weight. It was very hard for me to improve my physical strength once it dropped, and I felt as if I had sinned against myself and was embarrassed. It was very difficult for me to do well one year, and then my grades dropped the next year, so I think my self-esteem dropped a lot.” Looking back, she said, “In this book, there were so many words that I could say to myself, ‘You are an amazing person, you are a good person, you can do it.’ I cried a lot while reading the book. I’ve recovered a lot now,” he said.
He’s ready to put his troubles behind him and focus on preparing for next season, but there’s a catch. Kim Kang-min, his mental support, was selected by the Hanwha Eagles in the second round of the draft. Choi Ji-hoon was Kim’s successor and was nicknamed “Baby Beast” after Kim’s nickname, “Beast.
“I was so surprised. Kangmin said, ‘Do well without your brother. You can do well, you can do well, because you’re playing here without your brother,'” he said. He said, “I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t know what kind of face I should make.” He was sad.
“I don’t know if this is the right thing to say, but I hope you have a really long and successful career. I’m sure your fans think so too. When you think of ‘Kim Kang-min,’ you remember him more for SK and SSG than for Hanwha. That’s why I hope you’ll continue to be Kim Kang-min even though you’ve moved to another team.” “I think it will be really emotional when you say hello in Incheon next year,” he concluded the interview.