PHOENIX — Brewers first baseman Ji-Man Choi isn’t the only person in Milwaukee’s clubhouse who speaks fluent Korean. However, the first time he encountered the one other person who does — his translator, Daniel Cho — it wasn’t without some uneasiness.
“It was super awkward,” Choi said through Cho on Wednesday, prompting both to burst into laughter.
Things since then?
“It’s still awkward,” Choi said again through Cho, the two roaring into laughter once more.
Choi quickly recovered from his brief hysteria, then in English, added, “Joking!”
Prior to meeting about 20 days ago, the two had never spoken before. Cho was only familiar with Choi because of the latter’s past stints with the Yankees and Angels.
Beyond their awkward greeting, the two 26-year-olds have built up a good rapport.
“Since the first day, we’ve kind of clicked,” Cho said. “He’s honestly a really good dude. He makes it easy for me, and I’m here to make it easier on him, too.”
Interpreters are not uncommon in Major League Baseball. In 2016, the league announced it expected each team to hire a professional to assist with Spanish-to-English interpretation. In 2017, 31.9 percent of players were Latino.
Additional interpreters are at a team’s discretion. Last season, Asian players made up 1.9 percent of the league, according to MLB.
Choi had agreed to a minor league contract with the Brewers over a month before spring training began, a deal that included an invitation to their camp. At the outset of spring training, Choi, a native South Korean, was virtually unavailable for interview with media since he spoke hardly any English. It wasn’t until Cho arrived some 20 days ago that that changed.
The arrangement came about fortuitously. Cho already had been hired by Milwaukee’s Triple-A affiliate, Colorado Springs, to serve as a digital-video intern. The Brewers approached him about simultaneously serving as Choi’s translator, since both clubs make use of Maryvale Baseball Park in the spring.
“We didn’t even know about this opportunity until about early this year,” Cho said. “They asked me would I mind coming in early to work with Ji-Man, and I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’ It’s been a blessing.”
Cho grew up in Fullerton, Calif., and fell in love with baseball playing catch with his father. He joined a friend’s Little League squad when he was in grade school, “and from then on, I never stopped playing.”
In high school, Cho was a pitcher and middle infielder. He played professionally with Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, for about a year. An injury prevented him from ever officially taking the field in a game, however.
“I gave it up due to injuries,” Cho said. “The culture was a little bit different and it was hard for me to adjust.”
Cho returned stateside and attended UC San Diego, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications.
“I realized I wanted to do something that kept me as close to baseball as possible,” Cho said, “and that’s why I’m here now.”
Cho sent some international scouting reports to the Brewers. It left a good impression, and they offered him a gig as a video intern with the Sky Sox. Choi’s signing has provided Cho an opportunity with the big-league club.
Cho’s day starts early in the morning, mixing and cutting video at the minor league facility, before getting to the Brewers clubhouse by 8 a.m., when media availability begins, to serve as a translator to reporters and teammates. He hangs around the clubhouse through availability, in case media wants to speak with Choi. After that, he heads back to the minor league facility, but stays on-call for whenever Choi needs him.
“Anytime he needs me, he texts me, and then I run over,” Cho said. “So I’m going back and forth.”
His effort has been greatly appreciated by Choi, who credited Cho for helping him assimilate and subsequently enjoy some of his recent success.
“It’s extremely important,” Choi said of his interpreter. “Especially just as an Asian-born player, being able to communicate with teammates and coaches.”
In the spring, hustling over from one side of a complex to another is doable. When the Brewers and Sky Sox go their separate paths, however, it won’t be so simple.
The Brewers kept Choi on their 40-man roster, and could potentially keep him on the major league roster into the season. Cho, meanwhile, is scheduled to go to Colorado Springs when the Sky Sox begin their season.
Cho would have to travel more than 1,000 miles to go from Milwaukee to Colorado Springs. So what happens then?
“You know, that’s one of those questions that’s up in the air right now,” Cho said. “I’m scheduled to go to just Colorado Springs right now, and just letting things fall into place right now.”
Until that decision comes, Cho is enjoying his job. He finds the chance to work around major league players fun and exciting, in addition to cutting video and making scouting reports.
Said Cho, “I feel like I’m living the dream right now.”
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