During the first week of spring training, Jamey Carroll glanced at his teammate and thought about making a joke. Shin-Soo Choo, just days away from leaving the Cleveland Indians and joining his South Korean teammates in preparation for the World Baseball Classic, had just returned from the field.
"You're going to leave and we're not going to see you again," Carroll joked to Choo, who then laughed.
It was a moment of levity between teammates, but for Choo, politics and patriotism are serious issues he lives with each day. He has been in the United States since he was 18 years old, and in just two years -- barring an exemption from his government -- Choo will be required to report back to his native Korea and fulfill his military obligation. Like all South Korean men, Choo faces two years of mandatory service, which must begin before he turns 30. In July, Choo will turn 27, giving him the 2009 and 2010 seasons before his baseball career at best would be interrupted and at worst come to an end.
For Choo, the Indians' right fielder and one of the best players over the second half of last season, it's a difficult and emotionally intricate position from which to operate.
"I'm not worried about it right now," said Choo, who hit .309 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs in 94 games in 2008. "We'll see what happens after the 2010 season."
The Indians are hoping it won't come to that. Exemptions from military service are rare -- and normally reserved for athletes who win Olympic medals -- and the South Korean team entered the first WBC in 2006 with no promises. After the team made it to the semifinals, however, the government granted exemptions to the entire team. Again this year, no promises have been made to the South Korean team, and in fact the government has already indicated there will be no exemptions.
While Choo makes it clear his participation in this year's tournament is born out of respect and devotion to his country, the Indians are aware it could help Choo remain a major leaguer, even if that seems like a long shot. As of Wednesday morning there was a new wrinkle: Choo, who came back last May from Tommy John surgery, has a sore triceps muscle, and the Indians' preference was to diagnose Choo and treat him in Goodyear, Ariz., the site of their new spring training complex. Yet, late Thursday a pact was reached -- Choo would remain in Japan and play for South Korea in the first round against Chinese Tapei on Friday morning, but only as designated hitter.
Now that there is resolution and he is playing in the first round -- his health will be re-evaluated after the opening set of games -- Choo will be the leader and only major leaguer on his team, whose eventual success will be judged unlike any other in this tournament.
Choo came to the U.S. after the Mariners saw him named the MVP and best pitcher at the World Junior Baseball Championship and signed him in 2000 for $1.33 million. Ted Heid, the Mariners' director of Pacific Rim scouting, said Choo was the best amateur left-handed pitcher and position player in the world at the time, but the organization felt that the transition from pitcher to hitter was achievable for Choo.
"You can always go back to being a pitcher," Heid said. "Rick Ankiel is the rare one."
After converting full time to the outfield, Choo remembers heading to a bullpen session when a coach pulled him away and told him to pick up a bat.
"I said, 'What? I don't know how to hit it,'" Choo said.
He really didn't know how to field or throw from the outfield very well, either. So the 2001 season he spent in the Mariners' Arizona rookie league, Choo said, was a learning curve. Along with cultural indoctrination, his days included a lot of overthrows and strikeouts. And it wasn't just English that Choo was learning. He also realized that players in the United States cared about other sports like football or basketball. In Korea, Choo's life -- like those of all his countrymen -- was centered on the lone sport he played.
"You only play one," Choo said. "They practice every day; there's a game every day. In Korea it's fun, but it feels more like a job. Now I've been here a long time so I understand. It's a change of mind, a change of style."
There were other adjustments, too. Choo never took an official English class, so he learned from his teammates and by ordering food for them in restaurants. He had a translator for the first few years, then was on his own. His sense of humor endeared him to his teammates, and is evident even when he's in the company of strangers. When asked how he met his wife, Choo said it was a complex story, hard to explain in English. Bottom line, though, was they met in 2004, and after only a few months of dating, Won Mi Ha came to the States.
"I'm very quick," he said, then started laughing.
So was his adjustment as a hitter. Choo batted .302 with a .933 OPS in rookie ball. His breakout season, though, was with Double-A San Antonio in 2004, and he eventually earned a call-up in 2005. He was among the Mariners' top prospects -- Baseball America ranked him seventh in 2006 -- but with Ichiro Suzuki entrenched in right field for the foreseeable future, Choo was traded in July 2006 in a deal for Ben Broussard, and he spent 45 games with the Indians. His left elbow, from all the years pitching for Korea -- where pitchers will often appear in all three games on a weekend, for instance -- was starting to hurt.
"Last year he came into his own and started to feel comfortable," Carroll said. "He became our go-to guy."
Choo, whose arm is so strong other teammates break in their new gloves by playing catch with him, had played in only 64 major league games before 2008, and never got into a genuine everyday routine. Last season gave Choo a clearer sense of his abilities -- especially hitting .286 with a .455 slugging percentage against left-handers -- and he entered spring training this year with a different mindset.
"I think I had a good year, a good comeback," said Choo, who earned American League Player of the Month honors in September. "I think last year my goal was to be healthy and finish the season. I felt comfortable with the season last year. I have a lot of confidence because I felt, OK, I can play in the big leagues every day."
Known as one of the team's hardest workers, Choo said his work ethic was ingrained in him at a young age. Choo speaks with his father nearly every day, and his father always reminds him that sport is unlike the real world. Everybody always remembers the batting champion, his father tells him, but no one remembers who finished second. Choo takes the advice to heart, and Carroll jokes that Choo wouldn't be satisfied even if he were hitting .400.
"I'd be happy maybe a couple of days, but I'd still keep trying," Choo said with a smile that turned serious. "There's better than .400. &133; Everything can be better. Don't stop."
His attitude is clear to the Indians' front office.
"I think he's very focused on being a very successful major league player and that's a priority for him," said assistant GM Chris Antonetti. "He's put in the necessary work in all facets of his game and his life to make that happen. It's really a tribute to him in how hard he works in all of those areas."
The fruits of his hard work are starting to gain recognition around the league. A few days into spring training this year, Mark DeRosa was sizing up his new team while hitting in the batting cage. DeRosa, traded to Cleveland this winter by the Cubs, turned to Carroll and asked him what the deal was with his new Korean teammate.
"How is this guy?" DeRosa asked Carroll.
Carroll told DeRosa a story from last season, when he watched Choo -- a left-handed hitter -- smoke a line drive to left field that cleared the fence and left his teammates in awe.
"For a lefty to hit that was impressive, and how hard he hit it," Carroll said. "He has that capability to wow you. That's why it's going to be fun to watch him over a whole year span, hopefully healthy."
Everything he did over 94 games last year helped cement a belief in the Indians' dugout that Choo might not be your average platoon outfielder. Maybe, he could be much more.
Choo has two more seasons to fulfill that potential. The rest will be decided by his government. So for now, Choo's most important tasks are making his country proud, and winning the World Baseball Classic.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.