By Cho Mu-hyun
“Choo Choo Train” is about to chug back on the tracks.
Cleveland Indians outfielder Choo Shin-soo returns to the pitch after more than seven months, as his team take on the Toronto Blue Jays at home in their first game of the 2012 Major League Baseball (MLB) season Friday (KST).
This year’s games began with an opener at Tokyo Dome between the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners on March 28. The professional clubs of the MLB are finishing up their respective exhibition games before the real matches start Friday on American soil. The Indians ended their warm-ups Wednesday.
The 29-year-old slugger made 22 appearances in preseason outings and recorded a .271 batting average, two homers and five RBIs.
Though he struck out 17 times, he walked 12 times and marked an on base percentage of .384, signaling a return to form and put last year’s lackluster season behind him.
American sports media were favorable in their outlook for the returning Korean. ESPN predicted 18 homers and 20 stolen bases, two home runs shy of joining the 20-20 club, and a batting average of .280. USA Today was more positive in their view, projecting a batting average of .288, 22 homers and 20 stolen bases. Both outlets are in agreement that he will have a solid season.
“I want to become a father and a player that can face his family proudly,” said Choo, whose target is appearances in all 162 scheduled fixtures and over 600 at bats.
The franchise star marked a .300 batting average and joined the 20-20 club for two consecutive seasons in 2009 and 2010. The stellar play made him arguably the most successful Korean slugger in the United States, and his salary rose 10 times from the near-minimum salary of $461,000 he received in his 2008 debut with the Tribes.
He joined the Korean national team and clinched a gold medal at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, clearing himself of compulsory military service. Nothing seemed to get in his way for 2011.
But after a drunken driving debacle in May that caused great disappointment for the side and the fans, a persistent thumb injury hampered his play that made 2011 the worst season of his career.
And the team suffered in his absence, being eliminated from the playoffs and ending their season with 80 wins and 82 losses. Besides Choo’s injury, team pillars Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and various others missing out caused the Indians to fadeout out in the homestretch.
The roster for 2012 is no better. Except for veteran pitcher Derek Lowe, there are no high-caliber members in the side’s line-up. Sizemore will miss games again due to injury. Starter Fausto Carmona, whose real name was revealed to be Roberto Hernandez after a false name visa scandal last year, is currently in the Indians’ restricted list and unable to play.
Choo’s shoulders are loaded with pressure from the club and his own expectations, but he just may rise above the occasion to prove what Cleveland was missing last year.