On a breezy Saturday afternoon in June, Hyun-Jin Ryu stands face to face with this writer for an impromptu, long-sought-after interview in the corner of a private parking lot at Petco Park in San Diego, Calif. His bulging cheeks bathe sunlight, as he leans against a wall and cocks his head back. This is a rare sight, as typically, where there is Ryu, there are also hordes of Korean media surrounding him. He is, after all, the first Korean baseball player to go to the major leagues straight from the Korea Baseball Organization, where he was already a bona fide superstar.
But today, there are only Ryu, his interpreter Martin Kim and myself. Wearing a blue Dodgers sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, the 26-year-old appears relaxed; he’s not pitching today, the third game in a four-game series against the San Diego Padres. Then again, he almost always looks like this. On and off the field, Ryu—a hefty figure at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds—portends calm, cool and confident. So much so that early perceptions of him by the U.S. media and American baseball fans took that demeanor as cockiness.
Indeed, he had a rough early start. When spring training started in Arizona, sportswriters reported Ryu’s apparent lack of athleticism—he failed to keep up with his teammates in their first conditioning run. After a few days, he told Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt that he didn’t want to throw in bullpen sessions in between starts, which is a typical routine for major league starting pitchers. He even shrugged off advice from a Dodger legend. After observing Ryu’s pitching session, Sandy Koufax, a four-time World Series champion and a three-time Cy Young Award winner, gave the rookie tips on how to throw the curveball more effectively, to which Ryu said: “You always want to learn from the best, [but] just because it worked for Sandy Koufax, that doesn’t mean it will work for me.”
Then, in his debut on April 2 against the San Francisco Giants, the sold-out home crowd at Dodger Stadium booed him in unison for his lackadaisical baserunning in the sixth inning, after he hit a high chopper to third base and lollygagged it to first base.
Who was this rookie with the attitude? At that point, all Dodger fans knew was that this newcomer from Korea had cost the ballclub over $60 million. The Dodgers paid his former KBO team, the Hanwha Eagles, a $25.7 million fee just for the right to negotiate with the left-hander. Ryu’s six-year contract cost the franchise, which already boasts the highest payroll in baseball, an additional $36 million.
But, then, the narrative began to change. Before long, the jeers and skeptical sports columns were replaced by applause, cheers and praise from coaches, teammates and even opposing teams, as the pitcher, one game after another, showed who he really is. Although it would be expected for a rookie from a foreign league to take some time to get his feet wet in his new digs, Ryu has hit the mound running, impressing baseball veterans with his strong arsenal of pitches and ability to change speeds.
“He’s gotta be in the top 20, at least. Maybe even higher,” says Honeycutt, who during his own major league career was a two-time All-Star and World Series champion.
“He’s one of the upper echelon starters in the league,” says teammate Clayton Kershaw, the three-time All-Star and Cy Young Award winner.
And what some had earlier characterized in him as “swagger” changed to “relaxed” and “confident.”
Off the mound, teammates describe Ryu—nicknamed “Korean Monster”—as laid-back, well-liked and funny, adjectives not typically associated with previous ballplayers from Asia, who were more often deemed diligent and hardworking. Footage of him doing Psy’s “Gangnam Style” dance or bearhugging teammates in the dugout now crowd out the earlier jeering at Dodger Stadium.
“He’s always laughing and smiling,” says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. “It’s just a little different from players I’ve had, like Hideki Matsui, Chien-Ming Wang and Chan Ho Park.”
Of course, the most predictable comparison would be to place Ryu alongside Park, the former Dodger who in 1994 emerged from Hanyang University and was the first Korean ballplayer to come to the major leagues. But, different from Park, whose goal seemed to be to put Korea on the MLB map, Ryu—part of the next-generation KBO who grew up watching Park play in the majors—is trying to go beyond that and prove that Korean ballplayers are formidable, that they can compete with and even beat the best. And that’s the narrative Ryu is trying to tell with every performance from the mound, and perhaps even with his seeming swagger.
“Everything is different,” Park told KoreAm last February, when asked to compare Ryu to himself in the early ’90s. “Ryu is already a proven player, but I was completely unproven. I had to develop in the minor leagues for the first few years. Ryu comes as a player who’s ready to make an immediate impact in the big leagues.”
As with Park, Ryu also carries the added expectations of not only his countrymen back home, but also of those Koreans in the U.S., who have quickly grown enamored with this baseballer with enormous potential. Heck, even the Korean Canadians have joined in the fervor, making headlines last month for registering a rousing ovation for Ryu in Toronto.
And, with the Dodgers’ recent string of wins, the Korean Monster may even become the first Korean to start a game in the MLB playoffs.
In other words, the pressure’s on. Or is it?
“Personally, I’m not really feeling a whole lot of pressure,” says Ryu matter-of-factly. “Sure, there’s that pressure of having to represent Korean baseball, but there’s not much besides that.”
There he goes again. There’s that swagger.