They used to hate the Toronto Blue Jays in South Korea.
Those feelings are bound to happen in a sport that sends exuberant fan bases on a journey through joy and wonder and indignation and resentment all in a span of nine innings. That’s baseball.
And in South Korea, where baseball is far and away the most popular sport, a grudge has been held against Canada’s only major-league team since they knocked the Texas Rangers out of the playoffs in both 2015 and 2016.
“The Rangers had Shin-Soo Choo, and when the Jays took them down in back-to-back years, Korean fans just hated the Jays for eliminating a team with a Korean player,” said Jeeho Yoo, a Seoul-based sportswriter who covers baseball in English for Yonhap News Agency.
But on Sunday night, when the team signed prized free-agent pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, all of that changed.
“The Blue Jays are going to go from one of the most hated teams in Korea to one of the most loved ones,” Yoo said with a chuckle in a telephone interview. He has been covering Ryu since his career began in the Korean Baseball League and with the national team.
When reports surfaced that the beloved pitcher from Incheon, a large city bordering Seoul, would not return to Los Angeles after six seasons with the Dodgers and would instead sign with the Blue Jays, it started a media marathon in his homeland that’s still going.
“Hyun-Jin Ryu was the biggest positive news of the year in Korea. Media coverage has been 24/7 since the signing,” said Daniel Kim, a content director and host for DKTV, who reported on Twitter that all Jays games will be aired nationally in Korea next year. “Just this past season, it felt like watching Super Bowl every five days.”
In the 12 hours following reports of his four-year, $80 million (U.S.) contract, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Toronto Blue Jays were the most-searched terms on Google in Korea. Among the 11 active Korean players in Major League Baseball (according to Baseball Almanac) none are as popular as Ryu, who won the ERA title last year and was runner-up to the Mets’ Jacob deGrom in voting for the National League Cy Young award.
So when the Jays signed Ryu — who hopped a flight to Toronto on Christmas Day — to their largest deal since team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins arrived on the scene, they also acquired an entire fan base with him.
“Those fans who rooted for the Dodgers will probably root for the Jays now,” Yoo said. He watched every Ryu start last season despite the 17-hour time difference, and says the effort devoted fans make to watch him pitch on the other side of the world is quite common.
Jennifer Lee, whose family moved from South Korea to Canada 15 years ago, sees the unconditional love of a Ryu fan in her father.
“My dad really loves Hyun-Jin and he was so proud when he was on the Dodgers,” said Lee, whose parents moved back to Seoul a few years ago. “He would always talk about him, and when he went to California for work he saw him play. So this is a really big deal for him.”
Lee has never had much interest in baseball, but like most South Koreans she knows quite well who the new Blue Jays pitcher is. She says she’s seen two Jays games since moving from Vancouver to Toronto four years ago, but just minutes after reports of the Ryu signing came in, plans were already in the works with her dad to catch another one.
“He messaged me about it this morning, like, ‘Oh my god, I need to come to Toronto so we can go to a game,’” she said. “It’s a really great way for my country and South Koreans to be more familiar with the Blue Jays. They’ll definitely take an interest now.”
According to Statistics Canada, 69,670 Korean immigrants lived in the Greater Toronto Area in 2016. Members of the South Korean community in the city say the baseball roots are already here, but the Ryu signing could take support to another level.
“I think the signing raises the profile of baseball back to the Korean community in the GTA,” said Stephen Lee of the Korean Grizzlies baseball team, which has played out of the Metro Pacific Baseball League since 2011. “There had been a grassroots Korean baseball community that started in the 1980s that played in Christie Pits, where the original Koreatown was. It has gone through its ups and downs, but the league we play in continues the legacy that started many years ago in the GTA.”
Andy Park, a member of the Grizzlies who grew up in Busan, a large port city in South Korea, says Ryu’s reach will extend far beyond Toronto: “The Blue Jays fan base will be increased with Korean fans from other Canadian cities like Montreal and other U.S. cities close to Toronto, driving to Toronto to watch Ryu pitching.”
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A year after a 95-loss season that saw attendance crash to 1.7 million — a long way from the 3.3 million who showed up in 2016 — there will be many reasons for fans to get back to the ballpark next year, most notably full seasons from the young infield trio of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. But the Ryu signing brings a whole new dynamic to the club — a front-line starter and must-see attraction every five days.
“It’s going to be huge. There’s going to be a lot of 99 jerseys out there,” said Yoo. “You know when he’s going to be starting so they can plan ahead, come as a big group and wave their national flag.”
In 2013, a 26-year-old Ryu took the mound at the Rogers Centre in his rookie season with the Dodgers. About 1,000 Korean fans took over the lower-level right-field section and loudly cheered through his five-plus innings of work. He’ll likely walk out to that same mound on opening day next season: seven years on, and this time with an entire crowd on his side.
“We Koreans, there’s a sense of pride to have any athlete in any sport do well overseas. To have one of our own do well on the biggest stage of their sport is a huge deal,” Yoo said. “Korean fans in Toronto know that, I think, and they’re gonna come out in droves to watch him play.”
They used to hate the Blue Jays in South Korea. Now they’ll be travelling 10,000 kilometres around the globe to watch them play.