It was one of my favorite parts of the job.
One of the best parts of working in baseball is the beginning of spring camp and the freshness of a new campaign. I always traveled to Arizona believing hope was in the air – even when the realistic in me knew better.
It was always “Job No. 1” at the beginning of camp to introduce myself to the new players as they arrived at old Fitch Park. It was important that these players – those who had joined the organization over the off-season and the newbies who were in a big league camp for the first time – knew that they had someone to turn to if they had any questions. The way I looked at it: They were all human beings in different surroundings, and when it’s your first time in a new place, you’re not always comfortable right away. I relished the opportunity to be the answer man and help them feel comfortable.
Of all the kids I was able to help out, one who stands near the top of the list was Hee Seop Choi. If you’re a longtime Cubs fan, you certainly remember Hee Seop – a large, left-handed hitting first baseman from South Korea.
Sadly, Hee Seop’s claims to fame as a major leaguer were being injured in a collision with Kerry Wood – sending him to the hospital with a concussion – and getting traded to Florida for Derrek Lee. It’s too bad his Cubs time was short, because it would have been a fun ride had his career taken off – as Hee Seop was one of the nicest, most pleasant human beings to wear a Cubs uniform during my time with the club.
There certainly were language barriers, though, so I made sure he was my pet project during spring training 2001 – his first invitation to a major league camp.
From the first day he reported, I checked on him multiple times each day. Since he was a minor league player earmarked to spend the year at Triple-A, he did not have an assigned translator, so I made it a point to always be around if he needed help. During clubhouse access time when media could talk to the players, there were always bilingual Korean media members helping translate for their American media counterparts.
Whenever Hee Seop needed me, I was around. It wasn’t that I needed to lurk; I think he was just more comfortable knowing I was around.
Oftentimes, either before or after practice, Hee Seop would stop me in my tracks. He would be working on improving a sentence in English, or trying to learn the English name of a specific object he was pointing to. He was just a kid, but he was working very hard to fit into our culture.
Now that the scene is set … It was one of the final days at Fitch Park before the team moved six blocks up the street to HoHoKam Park for the start of Cactus League games, and Hee Seop was frantically trying to get my attention.
I heard someone yelling my name – “Chuck … Chuck” – and Hee Seop was waving his arms as if there was some sort of medical emergency.
I literally ran from one corner of the locker room to his spot, and he ducked down to look me straight in the eye. He was almost a foot taller than me – but now we were on the same level, and he had this serious look on his face.
“Look at them,” Hee Seop whispered about something going on directly behind me. “Please.”
I turned around and scoped the room to figure out what he was talking about. I thought for sure there was a TV crew filming him – or at least someone whose presence in the clubhouse was questionable.
I lined up so that I was at the same angle he was, and there were two Cubs pitchers talking – veteran Jason Bere, who had signed with the club over the off-season, and a kid in his first big league camp by the name of Jay Yennaco. Choi and Yennaco had been teammates in Double-A the year before, so it wasn’t like Hee Seop didn’t know who he was.
Bere was born in Cambridge, MA, and had spent his youth growing up around 25 miles north of Boston. Yennaco was born in Lawrence, MA – located near the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border – and was raised just up the road in Derry, NH.
It was just the two of them talking to each other – and their thick Boston accents came out. It was sounding like a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck scene in Good Will Hunting – just louder and thicker.
And as I honed in on their conversation, Hee Seop was trying to put the right words together. “What they saying? That’s not English language.”
I looked at Hee Seop and tried to stifle a laugh.
Then I turned back to Bere and Yennaco, just as one of them shouted “wicked smart” – pronounced “wickid smaht” – and lost it. Through my laughter, I admitted to Hee Seop I had no clue what they were talking about.
Turns out I needed a Bahston-to-English translator.