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DePodesta Didn't Overlook Choi

Most are focusing on loss of Lo Duca, but Dodger GM considers the new first baseman a key acquisition.

August 04, 2004|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

The Dodgers staged a reception for Hee Seop Choi on Tuesday morning, welcoming the Korean slugger to town with a ceremony at a Koreatown playground. After nearly an hour filled with speeches, photographs and autographs, a little girl shuffled across the dirt toward General Manager Paul DePodesta.

The little girl hesitated at first, then glanced up and smiled shyly, speaking quietly.

"Why did you trade away Paul Lo Duca?" she asked.

"To get Hee Seop Choi," DePodesta said, returning the smile with one of his own.

The little girl shuffled away, apparently unconvinced.

In this town, she is not alone.

Yet DePodesta expresses amazement that the first baseman has gotten lost in the four-trade weekend shuffle that had Guillermo Mota, Juan Encarnacion, Dave Roberts, Tom Martin and the popular Lo Duca leaving Los Angeles and Steve Finley, Brad Penny and Brent Mayne joining the Dodgers.

DePodesta says he acquired a terrific young power hitter in Choi and dismisses critics who deride him as a risk, a platoon player who strikes out too much.

"The people that are saying that don't know what I think I know and what the rest of the Dodger executives think they know about Hee Seop Choi," DePodesta told the Koreatown crowd. "To me, it's not a risk at all."

Choi, 25, is batting .270 with 15 home runs. He has walked more often, and struck out more often, than any of his new teammates.

He might have been the first player whose introduction to a playground crowd included his on-base percentage, slugging percentage and number of walks, statistics paramount to DePodesta.

In an era when young, cheap talent is in demand, the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins have traded Choi within the last nine months.

His career average against left-handers is .135, albeit in 52 at-bats. Manager Jim Tracy indicated that Choi will not start against left-handers for now -- he did not Tuesday, against Oliver Perez of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- but DePodesta said he expected Choi to develop into a full-time player in coming years.

"I think we've acquired one of the better offensive players in the league," he said.

DePodesta said he sent this text message to his old boss, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane: "Nobody's talking about Choi in this deal." Beane's reply: "I'll take him."

No chance, to the delight of not only Dodger management but to the largest Korean community in the United States. The Korean consulate reports that 274,185 people of Korean descent live in Southern California -- roughly equal to the population of Bakersfield, according to figures from the California Department of Finance.

Dodger senior vice president Tom Lasorda said he had been disappointed the team had not featured a Korean player since pitcher Chan Ho Park left as a free agent three years ago and had searched for one in several scouting trips to Korea.

"It's somebody who can be a hero to them," Lasorda said, "one of their own."

Park joined the Dodgers in 1994, becoming the first Korean player in the major leagues. As a high school student, Choi said, he would skip class to watch Park on television, on live broadcasts, in the morning.

And then Choi grinned. Everyone skipped class to watch Park, not just him.

"Everything stopped," Choi said. "Everybody loves Chan Ho."

Everybody loves Choi too, at least based on the media attention he draws. As the first Korean-born position player in the majors, he is shadowed by a personal press corps, one that packed for California once he was traded from Florida.

Jin H. Kim of the Daily Sports Seoul USA newspaper estimated that seven or eight Korean reporters would follow Choi daily in Los Angeles.

"He can hit a home run," Kim said.

"The Korean people want to see the big shots."

In Miami, Choi lived with his 24-year-old sister and his parents, whom he said cooked many of his meals. With so many Korean restaurants here, he said, the family need not choose between eating out and enjoying traditional Korean cuisine.

"It feels like home," Choi said.

In Koreatown, the playground on which the Dodgers welcomed Choi displayed banners in English and Spanish, reminding youngsters to sign up for softball leagues.

Dodger owner Frank McCourt pledged to refurbish the playground within a year, to transform that dirt lot into a sparkling new baseball field. McCourt turned to Choi and asked him to return to the playground for a clinic. Choi nodded.

When he was introduced to the crowd, Choi bowed. He spoke of wanting to play for the Dodgers ever since he watched Park on television, years ago and halfway across the globe. He told of a dream he had a month ago, envisioning himself wearing a Dodger uniform.

From the seats behind the podium, DePodesta spoke up.

"I had the same dream," he said.

From the side of the stage, a Los Angeles Police Department officer turned toward his partner and muttered, politely but audibly, "Bring back Lo Duca."

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