Gocheok Sky Dome

Seouled out

SEOUL — After two days of my being completely lost in Seoul starting on Monday, I had figured enough things out to make me sad to leave Friday.

Hwang Dong Un outside Gocheok Sky Dome. Courtesy of Hwang Dong Un.

I couldn’t figure out the rail system on the first day after arriving from the airport, but was lucky enough to catch a ride to the ballpark with Blake, photographer from Dodger Blue, who had called an Uber.

Since Task 1 was doing a story based on what fans were saying, I met a Seoul-based Korean colleague from my day job, I was able to hear from Korean fans outside the ballpark about their overwhelming admiration for Shohei Ohtani and some other MLB stars, especially San Diego Padres shortstop–and former Kiwoom Hero– Kim Ha Seong.

The two hours or so we spent outside quizzing fans left me unprepared to figure out the press arrangements after the Dodgers-Team Korea exhibition had started. The Sky Dome is a great park, but it reminded me of my first trip to Tokyo Dome’s media space 20 years earlier, a confusing maze of look-alike corridors and stairs.

I arrived arrogant enough to assume that South Korea used the same kind of electrical plugs and sockets that the U.S. and the other three Asian countries I’m familiar with, Japan, Singapore and Thailand do. But I scored an adaptor, filed a story based on a Japanese colleague’s reporting from Darvish’s presser and some quotes I got outside about Kim.

Korean fans at Gocheok Sky Dome on March 18, 2024.

I tried to follow an American reporter I know to the interview room after the game, but got off on the wrong floor, returned to the press box to follow someone else, but by then, it was deserted. The local staff couldn’t tell me where it was, so I gave up and walked the 70 minutes back to my hotel on foot, having downloaded a map app because Google Maps is useless here.

But because of that, I could walk, and meet Hwang Dong Un, a South Korean football writer. He was also walking home from the game, with his girlfriend, and wearing a No. 11 Nippon Ham Fighters shirt. Maybe because I’m old and can’t read countries let alone rooms, I assumed it was a Darvish shirt, which of course it wasn’t.

Hwang spoke eloquently in English about what the day meant to him, and about Korea’s relationship with Japanese athletes for a story I filed on South Korea’s powerful respect for Shohei Ohtani.

“Ohtani is Japanese, but he is a baseball player. And Koreans love baseball. So, I don’t think anybody says, ‘Ohtani is Japanese, so I don’t like him.’ Instead, it is like, ‘He is a baseball player with the best skills, so I love him.’ That’s how Korean fans think. He is a hero in Korea.”

-Hwang Dong Un

Fans talked about South Korea’s baseball relationship with Japan, how they assumed Japanese fans would admire Korean stars in MLB, and how they wished their national team could do better.

One fan, Yun Ji Ho, said the baseball gap between the countries has only grown since the two were more or less evenly matched in the first two World Baseball Classics.

“The Japanese players are now going to Driveline in the offseason, and taking advantage of high tech training,” Yun said.

South Korea is extremely connected to the net, and virtually cashless, and KBO has 3D high definition video replay for its umpires at a time when Japan plugs along with uneven technology. Yun said, however, the Korean baseball is still very rigid and old school.

“In many ways,” he said. “Korea is more technologically advanced, but the coaches insist on doing things the old way, when Japanese players are going out on their own to find answers.”

Tuesday, was optional practice day, in which about 10 Dodgers took to the field in the morning, including Yoshinobu Yamamoto throwing his lawn darts.

Later on, I was able to speak to Yuki Matsui and former SoftBank Hawk and Hanshin Tiger Robert Suarez. This presented two surprises.

Suarez was a surprise because the last time he spoke, when he was with SoftBank and before he had Tommy John, he was unable to speak any English. He’s still not as good a speaker as his brother Albert, who pitched for Yakult and whom I was informed was in spring training with the Nationals, but Robert could chat a bit, and was that ever cool.

I did a story on Yuki Matsui and his adjustment to the MLB ball. But after we spoke for all of three minutes, he blew past the Japanese reporters waiting to talk to him, and so they all asked me what he’d said. The last time this happened was in 2002, when my Japanese was far, far worse.

This time I could repeat what he talked about, the big news to the Japanese media was that his wife, actress Anna Ishibashi, was flying in to attend Wednesday’s game, when Matsui made his MLB debut. That news found its way into the Japanese media.

My interesting discovery from around Seoul after practice ended was that like Tokyo’s old “lower town” Shitamachi, Seoul has neighborhoods dominated by specific businesses.

Of course, there are coffee shops and eateries EVERYWHERE, but not far from the park in the area around Guro Station is a neighborhood where more than half the stores sell tools and hardware. Take a turn and walk a few more kilometers and one comes across a neighborhood dominated by karaoke bars.

Wednesday was Opening Day, but it was also sight-seeing day with Teruyo, since neither of us had anything going on until the afternoon. I picked the No. 1 sightseeing spot in Seoul and we headed off to the massive Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was quite cool before navigating the train system, and delays to get to the ballpark, where security was extra tight after the morning’s bomb scare.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to the field that day, since we were jammed up with press conferences. I was hoping to catch up with the Dodgers traveling secretary Scott Akasaki, who I’ve known since he was in Tokyo one summer in the 1990s as a student, if I recall. Well, I thought there would always be Thursday when he might be free to talk. Boy was I wrong.

Anyway, I got to ask Park Chan Ho about the growth of Asian baseball, and he said tons of interesting things, while Thursday’s starting pitchers, Joe Musgrove and Yamamoto talked. After being very friendly and talkative in Japan, Yamamoto has developed a 1,000-yard stare.

Perhaps it was because I asked him my question in English that he didn’t look at me when I spoke the way he did with the Japanese reporters, but the next night was pretty much the same, although he did glance my way after the butt-kicking that came with his MLB debut.

Dave Roberts talked about how cool playing in Korea was and what the series meant to him as someone who was born in Okinawa.

So a lot had already happened when the shit hit the fan on Thursday morning. Teruyo, who has been more or less plugged into Ohtani news since last year’s WBC, woke me up at 8 am to ask if I knew about a gambling scandal.

We have since been told two different stories by more or less the same group of people around Ohtani, although Ippei Mizuhara is no longer one of those after Wednesday’s game.

Here is my take on the gambling “scandal,” and MLB promoting gambling businesses for the same reason it promotes the military, because it gets paid well.

As I wrote Friday, this story isn’t going away.

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