GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Shin-Soo Choo found inner peace in a most unexpected place.
While taking basic training during the offseason with the South Korean military, the Indians outfielder was required to go on 16-mile hikes while carrying 55 pounds of weight in his backpack. It was during these physically grueling exercises where the 29-year-old finally healed the pain of a troubling year.
As his heart raced, his mind wandered.
He was cleansed.
“It was a heavy bag, but it helped me more mentally,” Choo said Wednesday following a morning workout. “Just walking and thinking. I thought about my future and back to 20 years ago, 10 years ago, everything in my life. It made me realize how lucky I am to be playing baseball.
“I feel better. My mind is better.”
Choo’s 2011 season was upended by personal and professional turmoil.
He endured injuries that led to three stints on the disabled list, wrist surgery after being hit by a pitch and an arrest in May for drunken driving that weighed heavily on Choo, who felt he had let down his country where he is regarded as a national hero.
He was crushed by embarrassment and shame.
But after reflecting on those challenges, and realizing there’s nothing he can do to change them, Choo has recovered with a fresh outlook on his career.
“Before, I used to think too much,” he said in a quiet clubhouse as many of his teammates took part in the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage. “I always tried to be perfect. But we are human. We can’t be perfect every time. Now, I am enjoying this time — right now.”
After becoming the first player in team history to bat .300 with 20 homers and 20 steals in consecutive seasons, Choo began 2011 poised for stardom. During training camp, he insisted the Indians could contend for the AL Central title and boldly predicted a playoff appearance.
However, Choo opened the year in the worst slump of his career, a slide inflamed by him worrying over stalled negotiations with the Indians on a long-term contract extension. Then came his arrest for DUI, a “mistake” he knew would change the way his countrymen — especially kids — viewed him.
“Everybody always wanted to talk nice to me,” he said. “Nobody would say anything bad about me.for 30 years, not that I’m perfect. But I never made a mistake like that. After that happened, I didn’t say anything because I don’t want to make any excuses. I made a mistake. It was my fault.”
It took Choo a long time to accept his failure. He’s finally come to terms with his failings.
“We are all human,” he said. “We are not special. I am not any different.”
He arrived at training camp fit in body and soul.
After his troubled 2011 season ended, Choo returned to South Korea and was able to spend time with family before spending four weeks with the army. Choo had received an exemption from serving the required two years for leading South Korea to a gold medal in the Asian Games.
Still, he had to go through training, where he learned how to fire a gun and tossed hand grenades.
It was a short stint, but Choo came away with a renewed gratitude for soldiers.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “It made me more appreciate my country and military people. Before I would see military people there and here not think anything, but now I see how much they sacrifice for their country. You can play baseball and have another job, but protecting your country is special.”
Indians manager Manny Acta has noticed a profound change this spring in Choo, who avoided arbitration in January by signing a one-year, $4.9 million contract.
Acta said Choo seems less burdened, care free.
“Last year he learned he can’t put his whole country on his back,” Acta said. “Yes, he represents all of them because he is the only big-leaguer right now from there. But it’s hard enough to play this game to be worrying about what everybody else is saying across the world.”
It was while he was on those long treks with his army unit of 200 that Choo began seeing the world in a different way.
The pressure to succeed had always driven him, and last year it nearly drove him mad. He couldn’t separate the business from the game. There was no joy.
But those six-hour walks showed him how to live life in small steps.
“It made me realize how lucky I am to play baseball,” he said. “I’m not worried about anything. I used to worry, not about baaeball, but how fans thought about me. Now, if people say something or talk bad, I don’t care. I’m not listening to anything. I’m just going to work hard, play hard and if I go 0 for 4, there’s the next day.”
Something else is new with Choo, who has added an elaborate tattoo to the inside of his right forearm.
Within the intricate, swirling design are his intials along those of his wife and three children.
It’s a reminder of what matters most.
“I have a beautiful wife, a beautiful family, what do I have to worry about?” he said. “I play in the big leagues. Everyone wants to play in the big leagues.”