BASEBALL/ Shohei Ohtani wins over South Korean fans despite rivalry

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BASEBALL/ Shohei Ohtani wins over South Korean fans despite rivalry By NARUMI OTA/ Corres

BASEBALL/ Shohei Ohtani wins over South Korean fans despite rivalry

By NARUMI OTA/ Correspondent

March 20, 2024 at 16:02 JST

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Photo/IllutrationLee Jae-ik speaks about his idol, Shohei Ohtani, in Seoul on March 14. (Narumi Ota)

  • Photo/Illutration

SEOUL—Lee Jae-ik overcame his long-held animosity and now warmly welcomes a former “enemy” to South Korea.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres will open the Major League Baseball season with a two-game series in Seoul on March 20 and 21.

Lee, 48, heads a fan club that will cheer for Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, who signed a record-breaking deal with the Dodgers in December.

Lee said he belongs to a “generation that grew up with strong anti-Japanese sentiment” stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

History issues have intensified rivalries between the two countries in many fields, including sports.

Lee said he had a dislike for Japanese baseball players when he first saw Ohtani pitch in 2015. To Lee’s shock, the Japanese right-hander overwhelmed strong South Korean hitters at an international tournament.

It was in 2018, Ohtani’s first season as a major leaguer, that Lee’s feelings toward Japan began to change.

Lee was curious about Ohtani taking on the daring challenge of “playing two-way” in the big leagues.

On Lee’s birthday in June 2021, he said he was truly fascinated by a home run smashed by Ohtani that day. He won the American League MVP award that year with the Los Angeles Angels.

While in his 20s, Lee published a novel that was made into a movie. But to avoid having an unstable life, he worked at a broadcasting station while writing novels—his real passion--on the side.

“The way Ohtani followed his true dream and refused to accept small successes made me feel ashamed of myself,” Lee said.

In October 2022, Lee opened an online bulletin board for Ohtani fans in South Korea. The number of members was initially less than 10, but it now exceeds 600.

Lee will watch the season opener on March 20.

“I can’t contain my excitement,” he said. “I’m going to shout ‘Shohei’ as hard as I can every time he steps up to bat.”

Lee is not alone.

Ohtani’s popularity is rising in South Korea. Fans have lined up to buy his uniform and other items at the official merchandise store set up at the venue in the South Korean capital.

On the morning of March 19, 30 minutes after the store opened, some sizes of Ohtani’s uniform were already sold out.


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