I once asked Shin-Soo Choo what he had learned about Major League Baseball's great players while growing up in South Korea.
The answer, in short, was nothing.
Nothing about Joe DiMaggio's hit streak or Jackie Robinson's barrier-breaking debut or Ted Williams' sweet swing or Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder catch. Nothing about Ty Cobb or Hank Aaron or Lou Gehrig.
He had heard a little bit about Babe Ruth, but only the most rudimentary details.
"He plays baseball, he drinks a lot, he smokes cigarettes, and he likes girls," Choo told me. "He does everything, but he still hits!"
To Choo, baseball was never a mere pastime aggrandized by folkloric tales of legends come and gone. Nor was it ever a recreational activity encountered under the auspice of Little League innocence.
No, to Choo, the game became, very early in his life, a professional path meant to be treated seriously and sacredly.
His high school was a baseball academy with a boot camp mentality. Every mistake or misstep was an invitation to punishment, sometimes of the physical variety. Every early-morning wakeup call or late-night lifting session was clouded by the threat -- the fear -- that if he didn't make it in baseball, what would the world have in store for him?
So Choo dedicated his entire being to the belief that he could make it in professional baseball, despite an unimposing 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame, despite the risk of forgoing two seasons of professional eligibility in Korea to come to the United States, and despite the uncertainty that came with switching positions, from the mound to the outfield, at the age of 18.
Choo was dogged in his belief that if he put in the time, the work, the sweat, he could ascend to the highest level of the sport and make a better life for himself and, ultimately, his family.
Saturday's news of Choo's pending contract with the Texas Rangers, then, is validation of everything Choo has done and all that he is.
Oh, sure, it's crazy money -- $130 million over seven years for a 31-year-old outfielder who hasn't hit lefties well and whose greatest asset is his patience at the plate. It's a colossal contract borne out of a wild winter market flush with revenues and thin on impact talent. It is not a bargain, and it is much a longer commitment than the Rangers really wanted to make.
But here's the guarantee the Rangers are getting, and it's one they've no doubt researched in recent weeks: Nobody will outwork Shin-Soo Choo. Nobody will out-hustle Shin-Soo Choo. Nobody will approach the goal of winning a World Series more passionately, more genuinely.
A contract of this magnitude deserves that much, and, short of certainty that Choo won't get hurt or regress as a hitter or defender, the Rangers can at least take comfort in the earnestness of the individual they've invested in.
Back when he was with the Indians, Choo was a favorite among the radio broadcasters who would show up to Spring Training in Arizona looking for players willing to do live interviews during the morning shows back in the Eastern time zone. Choo's English was limited, naturally, but at least he was the one guy they could count on to commit to a 4:30 a.m. Q-and-A before his 5 a.m. workout.
(I'm guessing Ruth in his heyday was just getting to bed at 5 a.m.)
There was assumption in the industry throughout Choo's free agency that the big markets might benefit most from the addition of a South Korean superstar to their lineup, given the marketing opportunities it could create. Choo, though, was not looking to be overwhelmed. When the Reds played at Dodger Stadium during "Korea Week" in Los Angeles this past summer, he was inundated with media requests and off-the-field responsibilities. He was happy to do it in that short spurt, but he wondered aloud about the impact such endeavors would have on his pregame prep in a more full-time capacity.
Perhaps that's one reason Choo reportedly turned down a $140 million offer from the Yankees, where distractions abound.
All Choo wants to do is play baseball at an elite level on a winning team. And to do so, he feels, requires a commitment to the cage, to the workout room, to the mental and physical grind of 162 games. The Dallas-Fort Worth area does have a solid Korean population base, so those marketing opportunities do exist. But the Rangers also offer Choo an environment in which his goals and values are in line with those of the organization, and in which his talents address the remaining offensive needs of an obvious contender.
Again, this contract is not a bargain. With Choo raking in an average annual value of $18.6 million over seven years, nobody can reasonably claim that on-base percentage is an overlooked and under-appreciated asset. I actually like the Choo contract more than the Jacoby Ellsbury contract, simply because Choo has been the more durable of the two. But both are replete with risk on the back end.
The point, though, is not about the particulars of the payroll, because, in a market such as this, there are "yowza" moments taking place left and right. The Rangers, with Choo and Prince Fielder aboard, have shown no shyness about putting themselves in the best possible position for a run at an American League West title in 2014, and that's all any fan can reasonably ask.
The point is that if you're going to invest such a significant sum into a single player, you'd better be getting a guy whose effort level will always be in line with his paycheck, whose aspirations will always be sincere, whose expectations will always be elevated.
Choo didn't learn much about the game's greats growing up, but he's never expected anything less than to be great himself. The Rangers have rewarded his dedication, and they stand to benefit from it, too.