We may be immune to the whole “player from overseas makes it in America” story by now, eighteen years after Hideo Nomo came over from Japan and took baseball by storm. It’s no easy task to play well in a new country where you don’t speak the language, but there have been many success stories.
Korea, however, is not immune to it. Here at Citi Field Thursday afternoon, Los Angeles Dodgers Hyun-jin Ryu pitched a home game.
The crowd on weekday getaway day games at Citi Field tends to run the gamut from eerily quiet to high-pitched and boisterous (on camp days). But Thursday, the number of Koreans in the stands almost certainly outnumbered Mets fans; a large Korean flag flew up the third base line, along with a decent number of homemade signs.
Ryu gave the fans what they came for: He pitched seven strong innings, allowed just one run, struck out eight; the Dodgers broke through in the eighth inning and won, 3-2. As he left the game after the seventh, the crowd rose to its feet, the sound comparable to Citi Field when Matt Harvey pitches.
“I was aware that there are a lot of Korean-Americans here in New York,” Ryu, whose round face is framed by a light-brown Justin Bieber haircut, said through his translator during his postgame press conference. “I was definitely surprised by the level of support, but it was definitely an encouragement.”
That was only the beginning of Ryu’s gauntlet, however. A huge throng of traveling press, easily three dozen, gathered with me to wait outside the Dodgers’ clubhouse after the game. This isn’t just a sports story, covered by Korean sports media. This is a matter of national importance.
The mass of media, mostly present for Ryu, quickly overwhelmed the visitors’ clubhouse. We moved, en masse, to the Mets’ main media room.
I waited with a man who works for KNN-TV, which he described to me as “Korea’s CNN”. He told me that covering Ryu, which he does every start, was the first baseball story of his career. He got very excited when he found out that I write about baseball regularly, grabbed his dictaphone from the podium where it sat waiting for Ryu, and immediately asked: “Do you remember Chan Ho Park?”
I said that I did.
“Well, what did you think of him, as a pitcher?”
Diplomatically, I focused on Park’s Dodger years.
“Well, how would you compare the two?”
The truth is, Ryu and Park are nothing alike as pitchers, and I worried the question itself was a trap for racists (“Sure, all Koreans pitch the same, right?”). I began to discuss their differing fastballs, but was rescued by the entrance of Ryu and his translator.
Ryu, dressed in a blue Dodger hoodie, looked back at the Mets backdrop behind him, and noticed the Citi logo — his translator mentioned that Ryu has a bank sponsor who might not like it. The Mets assured them both nothing could be done about the backdrop. His translator communicated this to Ryu, who shrugged, and the questioning began.
I want to think how to say this kindly. There were some good, perceptive baseball questions. But it was clear that many of the people present were also covering their first baseball story, ever.
Some of the questions Ryu answered included:
“Last start you gave up some big hits and home runs. Today, you were able to avoid big hits and home runs. Was that done on purpose?”*
“After the last game that you pitched, you were putting a lot of the blame on yourself. That was well-received by the public. How do you feel about how that was received?”
“In the last game, you had three hits. But today, you had no hits. How do you account for this?”
“You don’t look really happy right now. Do you have some kind of mental challenge?”
“Have you heard from Psy?” (Seriously, I double-checked my recording. This was asked.)
The translator was kind enough to translate both the questions and answers into English for, essentially, just me. Ryu answered every question forthrightly, though his translator rolled his eyes as he responded to the Psy inquiry with a simple, “Um, no.”
Finally, Ryu received the chance to address the New York fans. “To the New York fans here, I greatly appreciate your support. I’ll keep working to do my best on the mound.”
With that, Ryu’s availability, which clocked in at more than 16 minutes, or roughly three-to-four times what most players provide postgame, was over. I asked his translator if things are always like this.
“The crowd, no, other than in Los Angeles,” he said. “But the media, yes.”
* * *
* Ryu’s response: “Well, initially, it’s every pitcher’s mindset not to give up big hits or home runs. So I’m happy that that didn’t happen today.”