CLEVELAND: Chan Ho Park remains the reigning baseball icon in South Korea, but Shin-Soo Choo is gaining ground.
As the next big thing in Korean baseball circles, the Indians' right fielder has seen a quantum increase in the attention he receives from South Korean media members -- both print and electronic -- who have followed him from ballpark to ballpark.
Choo doesn't see Korean newspapers or television, but he is beginning to get a sense of his growing popularity back home.
"I talk to a friend a couple of times a week, and he tells me some things,'' Choo said on Tuesday. ""A lot of friends call me from Korea. But do I know if I am popular there? I don't really know, and I don't really think about that.''
Indians games are televised back to South Korea, so baseball fans there have immediate access to Choo's performances on the field.
"My parents watch every game, but they don't say anything,'' said Choo, referring to his popularity.
There are plenty of baseball fans in South Korea, especially in Choo's hometown of Pusan. Besides being the fifth largest seaport in the world, the city of 3.6 million is known as the baseball capital of South Korea and the home of the Lotte Giants of the Korean baseball league.
Pusan also has made a formal bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
"Baseball is very big there, especially the (U.S.) major leagues,'' Choo said. ""When I go back now, people stop me on the street to talk more than before.''
Choo is one of only 12 South Korean players who have made it to the big leagues, several for no more than parts of three seasons.
Asked if he would have opportunities for endorsements in South Korea now that he has become a regular for the Tribe, Choo said, ""I've talked to them, but I don't want to talk seriously until the season is over.''
Choo has seen the building-sized mural of LeBron James next to Quicken Loans Arena. Could that happen to him in Pusan?
"I hope so,'' Choo grinned. "There is a Korean soccer player who's picture is on a building like that.''
Still hanging over his head is two years of mandatory military service in the South Korean Army that must begin before the 2011 season. Choo was hoping that he would receive an exemption, as did the members of the 2008 South Korean Olympic baseball team, but that hasn't happened.
His only choices now seem to be to return to South Korea and lose two years of his career or remain in the United States.
"There are lots of people (fans) there who think I should stay here,'' he said, ""because it would make them happy to see me play.''
RE-ARMING -- Justin Masterson will make at least one more appearance in the Indians' bullpen before he moves into the rotation.
"He's throwing 45 pitches on the side today,'' Indians manager Eric Wedge said Tuesday, adding that Masterson's next outing could be as a starter.
Why are Tribe operatives intent on seeing if Masterson can start when he already has shown to be a valuable reliever? Because he has started before, and a pitcher who can pitch six or more effective innings is more desirable than a pitcher who throws one or two.
"I don't think there's anything holding him back from being a starter,'' Wedge said. ""It's just where he was. He was able to start or relieve, but Boston needed him more in the bullpen.
"Some (baseball) people think he's better as a starter, and others think he's a better reliever. I think that's probably a good thing.''
Eventually, someone will have to be dropped from the rotation to make room for Masterson. The most likely candidates are Jeremy Sowers and David Huff.
SOMETHING TO CROWE ABOUT -- It's far too early to know for certain, but Trevor Crowe looks like a different player than the one who approached the batter's box with more tentativeness than aggressiveness.
"Trevor always has had a lot of ability and athleticism,'' Wedge said. ""Maybe the last time he went down he applied the things he learned up here.''
Another factor might be at work: a greater familiarity with big-league competition.
"Every time you go down and come back up, you should have more confidence,'' Wedge said. ""Nobody is going to give you anything. But there's a reason guys are up here. So I think that's part of it with Crowe.''
FARM FACTS -- Scott Barnes pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings, giving up four hits and lowering his ERA to 2.79, but Lynchburg blanked Kinston 2-0. Tim Fedroff had three of Kinston's five hits... John Allman had two hits and three RBI in Lake County's 6-3 win over Kannapolis. Delvi Cid and Bo Greenwell also had two hits each... Second-round draft pick Jason Kipnis tripled and singled and had one RBI in his professional debut, as Mahoning Valley defeated Auburn 4-1. Preston Guilmet (4-2, 3.02 ERA) gave up one run in five innings.