Sometimes, I could identify with Hee Seop Choi. Couldn’t you? You try your best, you maintain a positive attitude, you experience some success, certainly on a par with your peers. But someone just doesn’t like you.
For the Dodger first baseman, it probably came down to the fact that he was the most visible symbol of a controversial 2004 trade made by former GM Paul DePodesta. He got Choi and pitcher Brad Penny in a swap that included beloved (but overrated) Dodger catcher Paul LoDuca.
That trade came to symbolize not only DePodesta, but the entire sabermetric (aka “Moneyball”) philosophy: No sentiment. No respect for a guy like Dukie who could hit in “clutch” situations (sabermetricians think “clutchiness” is a myth.) Over-regard for a hitter like Choi whose eye for the strike zone resulted in many bases on balls. Sabermetricians love bases on balls. Over-regard for “replacement level” players who didn’t cost much. That was the key, for Choi defenders. Was Choi great? No, but for what the Dodgers paid him, he more than earned it.
One guy who hated the LoDuca trade was former manager Jim Tracy. He missed LoDuca so much, he took over his uniform number. He took his despair and anger out on Choi, benching him as often as he could. For example, when it became clear that Jason Phillips was an incompetent catcher, Tracy moved Phillips to first base, displacing Choi, who was a much better hitter and fielder. Phillips was the kind of guy sentimentalists loved. He played hard; poorly, but hard. Choi was sort of happy go lucky. He worked hard, but it didn’t show. When he stood at the plate, working the count and often getting a walk, he appeared to sentimentalists to be unaggressive.
Choi was a pretty decent power hitter. If he came up with men on base and the game on the line, Dodger fans loved to chant his metronymic name: HEE SEOP CHOI! HEE SEOP CHOI! He had a kind of sunny charisma. But the more fans cheered for him, the more determined Tracy was to stick him on the bench.
When Ned Colletti was hired to replace DePodesta, he quite apparently wanted to put his own stamp on the team. Of course, he wasn’t about to oust successful DePodesta acquisitions like Jeff Kent, Derek Lowe or J.D. Drew. So it would have to be Choi. With less than two weeks to go before Opening Day, the Dodgers today placed Choi on waivers. The Boston Red Sox claimed him. Choi has a fair chance of playing in Boston, because the Sox are starved for power. Plus, the Sox GM, Theo Epstein, is the most successful sabermetric executive in the game.
There was a lot of affection for Choi on the great blog Dodger Thoughts, and many of its regular posters will continue to cheer him on. There were also a few posters who didn’t get the love at all. Choi’s departure promises to halt many bitter arguments that took place on that site and other Dodger blogs — but not for awhile, not til everyone gets last licks.
I think the affection for Choi comes from a place we all have inside us. We want to please everyone, but we just can’t. And sometimes our adversary wins. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s life, and life goes on. Choi might be in a better place now — Fenway Park, late summer game against the hated Yankees, the crowd yelling HEE SEOP CHOI! HEE SEOP CHOI! And Choi, blasting it out of the park. Or maybe walking. Good enough.