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Jason Stark on Hee Choi

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Hee's the Man


by Jayson Stark


If you thought it was fun to hear Jack McKeon say "Ugueth" and "Encarnacion", you haven't lived until you've heard him try to speak Korean. But here's the Marlins manager one April evening, motioning toward new first baseman Hee Seop Choi and happily shouting these immortal words: "Ka ta!".


That, McKeon says, is Korean for "Let's go!" Except, of course, it's not. Actual pronunciation: "Ga ja!" But, by McKeon standards, it's a spectacular effort. "Jack's even started to teach me some Korean words," says Marlins GM Admin Beinfest. "Think about that. He can't even get my name right half the time."


McKeon may not be ready to work as a U.N. interpreter, but he's found a way to communicate instructions that have helped Choi get off to a scorching start (5 HR in first 25 ABs): "I want you to have fun here. I want you to relax. It's your job."


That's a message Choi never got in any language last year with the Cubs. His ballyhooed rookie season fizzled into a .218/8/28 disappointment. "I don't think anybody gave him any confidence there," says Lenny Harris, his teammate now and then. "He was playing in fear that if he didn't hit, they'd send him down." This team, Choi says, "makes me feel more comfortable."


Just as they seamlessly absorbed Ugueth Urbina, Chad Fox, and Jeff Conine in 2003, the Marlins went out of their way to help Choi fit in as Derrek Lee's replacement. Third base coach Jeff Cox posted a list of 15 Korean phrases in the clubhouse for all to learn. "It's a team," Cox says. "He's part of us." Asked to name the Marlin who speaks the best Korean, Choi replies: "The third base coach. He's the man." And the worst? "Jack McKeon. Everything he says, it all sounds the same."


At 6'5'' and 240 pounds, Choi always had enormous power potential. This year, with hitting coach Bill Robinson urging him to stand more upright, Choi is seeing the ball so well that he's leading the Marlins in walks. And his knowledge of pitchers has improved, he says, from studying Baseball Tonight. "I watch," says the 25 year old Choi. "I learn."


Now if only he could get the manager to stop mangling his name. "I call him I-Hop," McKeon says, laughing. "Close enough."

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