Most first basemen extend and stretch for the baseball to get the call on bang-bang plays. Most first basemen don’t wind up in a split in the process. Ji-Man Choi is not most first basemen.
Choi, the Rays’ 6-1, 260-pound first baseman from South Korea, has caught fans’ attention during the postseason for a number of reasons. He hits home runs, and he smiles, and he celebrates the biggest moments with unbridled joy. And yeah, on the World Series stage and all the smaller stages leading up to it, Choi does splits when necessary to field the ball at first base.
When Choi spoke with the media before World Series Game 4, he gave a simple explanation through a translator for how he’s able to stretch like that at first: “Pilates. During the offseason — that’s about it.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, Pilates “is a method of exercise that consists of low-impact flexibility and muscular strength and endurance movements.” Some Pilates exercises “stress proper posture and movement patterns and balanced flexibility and strength.”
Choi frequently displays feats of unexpected athleticism of a player of his size. Earlier in the World Series, he streaked from first-to-third on a single, surprising the Fox broadcast crew. He often moves well laterally to field ground balls, and in the tweet above, you can also see Choi’s leaping ability to snag a high throw and tag an oncoming runner.
Pilates became a part of Choi’s routine about two years ago to address frequent injuries he had in the minor leagues. He hadn’t been able to stick in the big leagues, in part due to nagging issues. Choi just wanted to last entire seasons.
“I try to be more flexible, hoping that it will help with sustaining a full healthy season,” Choi said.
Choi is far from the only athlete to use Pilates in the hopes of strengthening their game. Aaron Judge, LeBron James and Auston Matthews have all used Pilates at times during their careers. So has Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim, who is 75.
The difference with Choi from a number of other athletes who do Pilates is Choi’s appearance. People look at James and Matthews and expect remarkable feats. In contrast, baseball often draws critiques that players don’t have to be “real athletes” to be good at baseball. Prince Fielder and C.C. Sabathia were two of the best players of their generation despite their large frames (although they too were more athletic than meets the eye).
Choi, though, is proof that baseball players often possess much more athleticism than immediately meets the eye.
Before Game 4, Choi joked, “A lot of people think I’m a gymnast instead of baseball player.”