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Korean fans unite behind Choo

Choo is batting around .250, down about 40 points from last season. Mark Matcho for ESPN

EARLY IN A mid-July home game against the Angels, Shin-Soo Choo strikes out for the second time. As the Rangers' leadoff hitter lumbers back to the dugout, I realize that my heart is racing.

I'm no Texas fan -- I root for the division rival Mariners -- and there is nothing significant about the game, aside from the hundreds of Korean Americans, myself included, perched in the stands. The Korean Society of Dallas had organized a heritage night in Choo's honor, luring the region's sizable Korean population to the ballpark with the promise of bulgogi beef sandwiches and rally towels. Choo is one of just two Korean-born players in the majors; the other, Hyun-Jin Ryu, pitches for the Dodgers. (They share an agent.) As a result, both are the subject of intense pride, and anxiety, among their countrymen.

As our hero returns to the bench, everyone sighs. An elderly woman, whose red-tinted perm sprouts out of her visor like a broccoli flower, hisses "Aigoo," which roughly translates to "Aw, crap."

Since joining the Rangers this year, Choo, who sprained his ankle in April, has struggled. He's batting around .250, down about 40 points from last season. Nearly every fan I speak with mentions this, dispensing the sort of matter-of-fact criticism that's familiar to anyone of Korean parentage. "I wish he'd do a better job," says Sung-Il Lee, a college student in owlish glasses. His girlfriend nods gravely.

Still, the mood is festive. A traditional drum troupe had performed before the game, and a member of the Wonder Girls, a K-pop group currently on hiatus, sang Korea's national anthem. The country's flag was unfurled in front of home plate. Behind me, teenagers whip out tablets to take selfies, several of which I inadvertently photo-bomb.

During the third inning, a pair of businessmen sit down, the tags on their fresh Choo jerseys dangling down their backs like plastic rattails. One tells me he used to attend Rangers games when pitcher Chan Ho Park, the first Korean to crack the majors, signed with Texas in 2002. After an All-Star season in LA, Park spent three-plus disappointing, injury-ridden years in Arlington. "It was ... not good," says the businessman.

I remember Park's arrival in the U.S. -- how Korean restaurants Scotch-taped his rookie headshot to their registers and how my mother, who grew up near his hometown of Gongju, religiously clipped stories about him. Together we followed his ascent, and then, long after his ERA lurched upward, his decline. Sports writers predicted an influx of Korean talent, but the wave never materialized: Since Park came up in 1994, just five other Koreans have played more than 100 MLB games.

When Choo approaches the plate in the bottom of the fifth, it happens again: My heart pulsates, as though an unseen force is flicking its switch. As he takes a strike, I realize I'll always feel nervous around Korean stars. When you're watching someone who represents you -- not the place you grew up, or the team you latched onto as a kid, but you, a person with very few representatives -- everything matters, even insignificant games. Failure stings more deeply.

Choo strikes out swinging, and a trio of old men wearing futuristic tracksuits and bucket hats moan. One of the event's organizers, Ted Kim, jumps up and leads a cheer: "GWEN-CHAN-AH!" ("It's OK!")

Earlier, Kim had confessed to me that he hadn't heard of Choo before this year. I asked him why he cared now, and he paused, considering his words. "Korean Americans often feel that there are certain paths available to them -- that as you get older, your dreams get more narrow," he said. "People like Choo help kids see that there are more opportunities."

A few innings later, Choo takes his last at-bat. This time he grounds out. The Rangers lose 3-0, and dozens of kids and adults in taekwondo jerseys scurry onto the field. As "Gangnam Style" blasts over the loudspeakers, a little girl clutching Korean and American flags flips through the air. Fireworks go off. On the way out of the stadium, I ask Kim's 4-year-old son what he thought of the game. He tells me that he likes baseball -- but he loves soccer.

"I want to be Messi," he says, his eyes shining in the dark.