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Monday, May 24, 2010

Gauging Shin-Soo Choo's Popularity In Korea

Posted By on Mon, May 24, 2010 at 3:45 PM

choo.jpg

There will be a similar, more serious piece on Choo and his popularity sometime in the coming months. This is not that serious piece. It involves Snooki. You've been warned.

During the gap between the end of the 2009 season and the start of the 2010 campaign, there was a documentary on Shin-Soo Choo's life broadcast on Korean television. And it wasn't sequestered to an ESPN-like specialty cable channel; it was on the Korean equivalent of NBC... during primetime.

Imagine how popular an American athlete would have to be to merit a one-hour documentary of their life shown on NBC in primetime. Not even LeBron could pull that off; his documentary is just an indie feature film. Just.

Not Jordan, not Hank Aaron, not even Muhammad Ali would be given that timeslot reserved for C-list celebrities foxtrotting with Simon Cowell in a hot tub for the bachelor's heart and six-month supply of cephalosporins. For a nation as obsessed with sports and fame as this one, disparate rooting interests and leagues prevent one athlete from singularly capturing the national psyche. It really takes an us-against-them situation, one brave star fighting for America against the world, for patriotic fervor to kick in and endear one athlete to a nation.

I suppose an Olympian could pull it off one day, but it'd have to be about an athlete who did more than win some medals. I mean, Michael Phelps would have had to hunt down Osama bin Laden and strangle him with his gold medals to extend his moment as America's hero and land a primetime doc. And even then, they probably wouldn't make it because he'd still be a douche. He only lives on now because Subway has poor choices in spokesmen.

Which makes the Choo doc, “Choo Shin-soo, Hitting Major League At Last,” all the more remarkable. It was so popular, it aired a second time.

As the Choo bandwagon gets more crowded by the day — profiles in USA Today, Yahoo!, and countless "he's a rockstar" comments from scouts and writers during spring training are just the beginning of the adoration, which seems to have hit a pinnacle this year — you wonder just what sort of rockstar he is. He may play in front of a couple hundred fans and the occasional bored seagull in Cleveland, but when Choo hits towns with large Korean populations, the seats are packed with his countrymen and women. On a recent west coast swing, Choo was supposed to get a day off California, but manager Manny Acta played him because of L.A.'s huge Korean population. Can't disappoint the fans — after all, they might be the only ones the Indians have.

That same road trip saw no fewer than eleven credentialed media from Korea and Korean news outlets who showed up just for Choo (and Mark Grudzielanek, everyone's nuts for Grudz). His stats from every game are written up for the Korean papers, his highlights shown every night.

While his popularity in his native country isn't entirely surprising or strange — pitcher Chan Ho Park garnered insane attention when he reached the majors and Ichiro is the gold standard for national obsession for Pacific-born players — but while Choo's here — he has hired superdevil agent Scott Boras, after all, which means come 2014, at the latest, he's out like trout — we should know what we're in the presence of. If just so we can know what we lost.

Who is this man — acquired for Ben Broussard, if you'll remember — who could stroll through Wal-Mart at Steelyard Commons and not be bothered once? If he's a rockstar, is he like Bono? Or is he like Bret Michaels? Is this a Hasselhoff/Germany thing? If he's a TV star, is he Seinfeld or Ryan Seacrest? And why hasn't some journalist asked these questions? Hoynsie, I'm looking at you.

In search of the answer, I fired off emails to a handful of respected Korean journalists asking a simple question: Is Shin-Soo Choo the Snooki of Korea?

Without exception, they responded that no one was as popular as Snooki and that she should move to Korea immediately. Weird.

They did put Choo's stardom in some perspective, too.

"[Choo's] popularity is a bit different," says Hyunsik Lee, New York Bureau Chief for Seoul Broadcasting System. "People do not like him like a movie star and a singer, more like respect him. Yes, people respect him. They have hope seeing him in difficult times."

So, just like Snooki. Go on...

"The level of popularity of LeBron or Tom Cruise can be attributed to maybe Chan Ho Park or Yuna Kim, Olympic figure skaing champion. Actually, her fame is hotter than that now," Lee says. "All the demographic groups of Korean population would know [Choo's] name, including aged women who usually don't get interested in baseball. But many Koreans who know him don't have a very strong impression of him in their brains yet. I think Choo can reach that level of national popularity in a few years to come."

So, Choo's actually more like JWOWW. Glad we got that straightened out. Lee continues:

"Koreans don't see the national sports competition as just a sport. They get really serious and even jealous. So, if you make impressive scenes in those national games, you become the national hero. Choo needs that kind of career boost to be loved more by Koreans."

Reality stars would release a sex tape in these circumstances; Choo just has to play good baseball. In any case, the last time there was a sex tape involving the Indians and minor leaguer Kazuhito Tadano, it didn't do him or the team any good anyway, so that's probably a poor option. Best to stick with baseball.

Follow me on Twitter: @vincethepolack.

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