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Fairfax Pitcher Choi Adapts to Changes at Home and on the Field

June 14, 1990|RAY RIPTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dan Choi, the son of Korean immigrants, said he loves the American way of life, particularly baseball.

Choi, a senior pitcher who recently led Fairfax High to its first Los Angeles City championship in 41 years, said he also shares some of the ancient values his parents brought with them from Korea.

His traditional values include a willingness to work hard and respect his elders. But when he has worked hard at baseball, sometimes to the detriment of his studies, it has brought him into conflict with his parents, whose judgment he reveres.

Choi's parents could not understand why he would occasionally neglect a homework assignment because he had spent hour after hour throwing a tennis ball at a spot on his garage door, trying to develop a curveball.

"My parents wanted me to give up baseball and concentrate on my studies," Choi said. "I tried to rebel against them and to focus on baseball (during) the last few weeks of school."

Choi's ability to concentrate on baseball was one of the chief reasons Fairfax won the City 3-A Division championship. The Lions had four playoff games, and Choi was the winning pitcher in all of them, including a 5-2 victory over a hard-hitting Washington team in the final.

Fairfax Coach Kal Badran said his team's only pitchers were Choi, a three-year varsity player and his most experienced starter, and Harlan Snyder.

Choi pitched complete games in the first two playoff contests and was allowed to pitch only three innings in the semifinals against South Gate because of a regulation limiting pitchers to 10 innings a week.

Badran said that against South Gate, Choi pitched the first two innings "to make sure we stayed in the ballgame," then finished up in the seventh inning after Snyder had given the Lions four strong innings. "It worked out just like I planned it," he said. Fairfax won, 4-2.

Choi might have pitched a lot during the final weeks of the season, but Badran said that the the 6-foot-1, 170-pound pitcher, who also played shortstop, would have done more if he were asked.

"The toughest thing I had to do in his three years (with Fairfax) was to keep him from overworking," Badran said. "He's the kind of kid who will pitch a game and the next day be out there taking ground balls (in practice)."

Choi's hard-hat approach to baseball produced excellent numbers. He finished the season 12-1-1 with an earned-run average of 1.31. In 64 2/3 innings, he allowed only 38 hits and 11 earned runs, struck out 77 hitters and issued nine walks.

Badran, who has been the head coach at Fairfax for nearly 20 years, said that until Choi came along he had never had a sophomore make the varsity. Badran remembers that an opposing coach, awed by Choi's coolness, said: "Your kid can throw a curveball over the plate with a full count on the batter."

Loren Drake, Badran's assistant and Fairfax junior varsity coach, has also coached Choi in American Legion baseball for the past two summers. He said that Choi probably was not selected in the June major league draft because he doesn't have a 90-m.p.h. fastball.

Drake said that Choi is capable of throwing a fastball in the "high 80s if he gets into the weights and works on (developing) his legs. He also has real good command of his curveball and can throw it for a strike in any situation."

Drake said Choi also has poise, a characteristic that some major leaguers don't possess.

Poise has enabled Choi to pitch well, perform in the classroom and handle a ticklish situation with his parents. The elder Chois probably didn't realize that a top prep pitcher might earn a college scholarship.

Choi said that his father, Moo, who used to oppose baseball, has now come around to his son's way of thinking. "He is pleased now that I'm getting phone calls and talking to college scouts," Dan said.

Moo Choi, who owns a gas station, said that his son has received calls from Loyola Marymount and Cal State Northridge.

"He wants baseball," the elder Choi said. "So OK, that's no problem. Whatever Danny says, that's it."

Danny said that although he wants to go as far in baseball as his talent will take him, "education always comes first." He said that he wants to major in business administration and possibly become an accountant.

If the money is right, Danny said that he would sign a professional contract after his junior year.

Loyola Coach Chris Smith, who will be short of pitchers next year, is hopeful that Choi will be spending at least his first three years of college baseball with the Lions.

Smith said that he is impressed with Choi whenever he sees him pitch. "He sells you every time he goes to the mound," he said. "He is obviously very competitive and throws the ball over the plate.

"He has a real fine command of the curveball and has confidence in it. That's what makes him a pitcher; he'll throw the breaking ball any time in the count, which keeps people guessing. And you can't really guess with Danny because he will throw his pitch every time."

Smith said that Choi's strong point might be his good pitching mechanics. "He does things correctly. The better athletes do things correctly because it's the easiest way to do them. (Because he has good mechanics), he hasn't had arm problems."

Choi hasn't had many problems with hitters either, not since he began playing baseball at 13 in a park league. Striking out would-be hitters gives him one of his greatest pleasures.

He said that when he began pitching, "I loved to see batters' faces when they struck out, their intimidated expressions. That really got me pumped up."

There's something else he enjoys about baseball. "There is always room for improvement," he said.

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