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Ohtani makes South Korean fans forget rivalry with Japan

JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                A cheerleading squad for the Los Angeles Dodgers during an exhibition game with South Korea’s Kiwoom Heroes at Gocheok SkyDome in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. In South Korea, a baseball game is a sustained sensory overload: each player has a fight song, and cheering squads — including drummers and dancers — ensure that there is near-constant chanting.
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JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES

A cheerleading squad for the Los Angeles Dodgers during an exhibition game with South Korea’s Kiwoom Heroes at Gocheok SkyDome in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. In South Korea, a baseball game is a sustained sensory overload: each player has a fight song, and cheering squads — including drummers and dancers — ensure that there is near-constant chanting.

JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                A couple at Gocheok SkyDome with jerseys for a Kiwoom Heroes player and the Los Angeles Dodger’s Shohei Ohtani for an exhibition game between the teams in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. In South Korea, a baseball game is a sustained sensory overload: each player has a fight song, and cheering squads — including drummers and dancers — ensure that there is near-constant chanting.
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JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES

A couple at Gocheok SkyDome with jerseys for a Kiwoom Heroes player and the Los Angeles Dodger’s Shohei Ohtani for an exhibition game between the teams in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. In South Korea, a baseball game is a sustained sensory overload: each player has a fight song, and cheering squads — including drummers and dancers — ensure that there is near-constant chanting.

JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                Shohei Ohtani, the first major league baseball player to dominate both hitting and pitching in over a century, bats for the Los Angeles Dodgers during an exhibition game against a South Korean team at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. Baseball fans in South Korea have embraced the superstar from Japan, despite the longtime rivalry and history between the two countries.
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JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Shohei Ohtani, the first major league baseball player to dominate both hitting and pitching in over a century, bats for the Los Angeles Dodgers during an exhibition game against a South Korean team at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. Baseball fans in South Korea have embraced the superstar from Japan, despite the longtime rivalry and history between the two countries.

JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                A cheerleading squad for the Los Angeles Dodgers during an exhibition game with South Korea’s Kiwoom Heroes at Gocheok SkyDome in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. In South Korea, a baseball game is a sustained sensory overload: each player has a fight song, and cheering squads — including drummers and dancers — ensure that there is near-constant chanting.
JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                A couple at Gocheok SkyDome with jerseys for a Kiwoom Heroes player and the Los Angeles Dodger’s Shohei Ohtani for an exhibition game between the teams in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. In South Korea, a baseball game is a sustained sensory overload: each player has a fight song, and cheering squads — including drummers and dancers — ensure that there is near-constant chanting.
JUN MICHAEL PARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                Shohei Ohtani, the first major league baseball player to dominate both hitting and pitching in over a century, bats for the Los Angeles Dodgers during an exhibition game against a South Korean team at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, March 17. Baseball fans in South Korea have embraced the superstar from Japan, despite the longtime rivalry and history between the two countries.

SEOUL >> Shohei Ohtani is a soft-spoken, 6-foot-4 powerhouse. He is a unicorn: one of baseball’s best hitters and pitchers, the first to dominate both in nearly a century. He might one day be considered the greatest ever to play the game.

He’s also from Japan, the former colonizer of South Korea. The nations’ relationship is still marked by tension and intense rivalry. But that hasn’t stopped South Korean baseball fans from idolizing a fellow East Asian player whose achievements are so rare, they nearly defy imagination.

Fans say they admire his blend of understated charm and herculean athletic prowess, which earned him a record $700 million to play with the Los Angeles Dodgers for 10 years.

When he landed in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday for a series of games that will open the MLB season, he was greeted at the airport by a crowd resembling one that might arrive for a K-pop idol.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s from Japan,” said Yoo Jee-ho, a veteran South Korean sports journalist. “If you’re a baseball fan, you appreciate that kind of talent.”

For what’s being billed as the Seoul Series at Gocheok Sky Dome, tickets rapidly sold out to see the 29-year-old phenom play for his new team, the Dodgers. The series will include the first regular season MLB games in South Korea, with the Dodgers playing the San Diego Padres on Wednesday and Thursday.

When Kim Sohye, a 15-year-old from Busan, South Korea, arrived in Seoul for the Dodgers’ exhibition game against a South Korean team Sunday, the first thing she did before entering the stadium was purchase an Ohtani jersey.

“He’s handsome,” she said, laughing shyly and blushing a little. “He’s tall, and he’s really good at baseball.”

Ohtani’s 2023 season was one for the ages. He struck out his then MLB-teammate, Mike Trout, to lead Japan to victory at the World Baseball Classic.

A fan on Reddit described Ohtani as “not a human” after his feats at the tournament, which included crushing a double at 118 mph, a feat of incredible strength, and stealing third base, which requires remarkable speed.

“What he is able to do seems like it should be impossible,” the fan wrote.

His season ended early because of an injury to his throwing elbow. Still, he became the first player to unanimously win baseball’s MVP award twice, which he celebrated in typical low-key fashion by high-fiving his dog on camera and not speaking to the media.

When Ohtani played in his new team colors Sunday against the Kiwoom Heroes, Lee Suhyeon, 41, was there.

“I barely got a ticket after someone else canceled,” said Lee, a longtime baseball fan from Daegu, a city about two hours from Seoul, who had never cheered for a Japanese athlete before. He managed to secure a seat for $45.

“It’s not just about his skill,” Lee said, “but also his personality, his attitude, his mind control, his professionalism.”

South Koreans’ embrace of Ohtani coincides with thawing diplomatic relations with Japan. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announced last year that South Korea would stop demanding reparations from Japan for wartime forced labor. Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, then traveled to Seoul for a bilateral meeting, the first such visit in 12 years.

And maybe the sting has finally begun to fade from South Korea’s loss to Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic championship.

“Japan and Korea, they’ve always had a great rivalry,” Ohtani acknowledged at a news conference in Seoul on Saturday. “I’ve always watched the games between Japan and Korea,” he added, “and always respected, looked up to Team Korea and the Korean players.”

Ohtani was previously in the South Korean capital as part of Japan’s 18-and-younger team when it played in the world championship in 2012. South Korea was “one of my favorite countries” at the time, he said, and he was glad to return.

At least some of the demand for tickets for the games in Seoul is fueled by fans of the South Korean players who are returning home, like the Padres’ Ha-Seong Kim, who last year became the first Asian-born infielder to win a Gold Glove, given to the best fielder at each position in each league. Many South Koreans are also fans of the Dodgers, for which Chan Ho Park, the star pitcher, once played.

But the South Korean fervor for the Japanese star is real. A YouTube short about Ohtani on a South Korean fan’s account was viewed at least 5.9 million times.

South Korean players have praised him, too. “What sets Ohtani apart is his mental strength,” said Park, the former Dodger, according to The Japan Times. “Now we have some great young players in Korea who are aspiring to be like Ohtani.”

The rivalry between Japan’s and South Korea’s national baseball teams has been one of the fiercest in any sport. South Korean fans have long seen Japan as a target to be surpassed.

Attitudes toward Ohtani stand in contrast to how fans might remember Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki, a star player two decades ago that South Korean fans frequently booed.

“Ichiro has said some things that Korean fans didn’t like,” said Yoo, the South Korean sports journalist. In contrast, Ohtani has been “pretty respectful,” he said. “I think Korean fans appreciate the kind of talent that he is. I don’t think there’s a lot of hatred toward this guy.”

Aspiring South Korean baseball players have also viewed Ohtani as a hero who has defied Western stereotypes of Asian athletes, according to Barney Yoo, the director of international operations at the Korea Baseball Organization, which governs South Korea’s top league.

“There’s a stereotype, which might be partly based on truth, that there’s a certain barrier that Asian players cannot overcome,” Yoo said. “But Ohtani is writing new history,” he added. “He’s given a lot of motivation and hope.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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