When South Korean third baseman Choi Jeong was chosen for the World Baseball Classic for the first time in 2009, he felt like a kid in a candy store, simply excited to be playing for the country against major league stars.
Fourteen years have passed. Choi, a month and a half from his 36th birthday, will be one of South Korea's oldest players at this year's WBC. Choi's selection, announced Wednesday, brought a different set of emotions to the SSG Landers veteran.
"Back then, I was just happy to be there," Choi recalled his experience from 2009 in a phone conversation with Yonhap News Agency on Thursday. "But this time, it was a mixed bag of emotions. I felt proud but also nervous at the same time. It's an honor to have a chance to go up against major league players in my mid-30s. I want to make sure I don't waste this privilege."
Choi is among eight infielders but the only full-time third baseman for South Korea. Manager Lee Kang-chul will count on the versatility of middle infielders, like Kim Ha-seong and Tommy Edman, who can both handle the hot corner. But barring injuries or a significant slump, Choi will have third base to himself.
Few hitters have been as consistent as Choi in the Korea Baseball Organization over the past seven seasons. Choi has won three home run titles in that span, and no one blasted more home runs in the 2016-22 window than Choi's 244. He leads all active players with 429 career homers and is on track to break Lee Seung-yuop's all-time record of 467 in the next couple of years.
In 2022, Choi had 26 home runs for his seventh consecutive 20-homer campaign and earned his eighth Golden Glove, awarded to the best overall player at each position.
At the WBC, Choi won't be alone in the senior ranks, with his close friend Park Byung-ho, the 36-year-old first baseman for the KT Wiz, also making the team. Choi led the KBO with 35 home runs in 2021, and Park did the same in 2022 with the exact same total.
"I think we have a good balance of veteran savvy and youthful energy on this team," Choi said. "Byung-ho and I will be the oldest ones. There's a role for senior guys on every team. That's a lot of pressure on us, but it also instills a sense of responsibility in us because we want to set a good example for our teammates."
On a personal note, Choi said he's glad Park will be by his side.
"He had an incredible season last year, and it's nice to have someone I can lean on," Choi said. "This could be our last tournament together on the national team. Hopefully, we can have good results and walk away with fond memories."
South Korea finished runner-up to Japan at the 2009 WBC, where Choi was a backup third baseman. In 2013, though, South Korea crashed out of the first round.
It suffered the same fate in 2017. Due to the effects of COVID-19, this will be the first WBC since then. Choi didn't make the 2017 team, and there are only four carryovers from that squad to this year's team. Choi is one of only two players to have played on the 2013 squad.
Despite having so many teammates without prior WBC experience, Choi said he didn't really have much to offer in the way of advice.
"They are all great players, and they are very driven, too," Choi said. "In 2009, I wasn't even a regular, but I really enjoyed the experience of going up against world-class players. The better you play, the more chances you will have to face major leaguers. I think this could fire up our guys."
Preparing for the WBC in March can be a challenge for professionals who are accustomed to building up for the season in April. Their offseason training schedule has to change accordingly. Choi's Landers will travel to Vero Beach, Florida, for spring training on Jan. 30, but Choi said he will be there beforehand to begin his WBC prep. South Korea's first game is March 9 against Australia.
"In 2013, I peaked too early before the WBC, and by the time the first round began, I was a bit tired," Choi said. "If I push myself too hard too early, it will come back to bite me later. I will pay attention to small details so that I can peak for March 9 and beyond." (Yonhap)