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How one man in South Korea rearranged his life to worship Dodger famous person Shohei Ohtani Categorical Instances

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When Lee Jae-ik began on his path to Shohei Ohtani superfandom, his spouse thought he was having a midlife disaster.

Possibly it was that her husband, a 48-year-old radio producer and on-air host at one in every of South Korea’s largest broadcasters, had liquidated tons of of 1000’s of {dollars} in shares to show his closet right into a shrine to the Japanese baseball phenom.

Or that Lee, a high-achieving persona who’s so protecting of his time that his cellphone instructs callers to “simply state what you are promoting,” was abruptly spending his hours after work buried in what he referred to as “Ohtani research.”

In fact, in response to Lee, his new obsession was extra of an epiphany — one which led him to the airport Friday earlier than daybreak alongside the 40 or so members of the Ohtani fan membership he based.

Their intention was easy: to glimpse — and hopefully be glimpsed by — their north star, who late final yr signed a $700-million take care of the Dodgers and now was coming to Seoul to play a two-game collection in opposition to the Padres to start out the 2024 Main League Baseball season.

Lee Jae-ik, president of the Ohtani fan membership in South Korea, throughout an interview at dwelling in Seoul.

(Jean Chung / For The Instances)

By 2 p.m., shortly earlier than the Dodgers had been anticipated to land, the group on the arrivals flooring of Incheon Worldwide Airport had grown to about 300 folks. Tv crews swarmed.

Lee waited behind a banner his membership had ready: an enormous ribbon of blue and white that includes Ohtani in his new uniform.

“Ohtani goes to learn about us after as we speak,” Lee stated. “I’m certain of it.”

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It began in 2015 with a world baseball match often known as the Premier 12. Ohtani, then 21, was largely unknown exterior devoted baseball circles.

An informal fan, Lee had tuned in solely as a result of South Korea was enjoying. Commentators stated that the younger pitcher, whose cherubic attractiveness caught Lee’s eye, was changing into a sensation in Japan.

“Good luck,” Lee remembered pondering. “Too unhealthy you don’t play baseball along with your face.”

What adopted was a beatdown. Within the 13 innings Ohtani pitched for Japan over two matchups with South Korea, he struck out 21 batters and allowed simply three hits.

Frozen by the 100-mph fastballs Ohtani was hurling at them, one South Korean batter reportedly returned to the dugout after being struck out and instructed a teammate: “This isn’t proper. You simply can’t hit it.”

Impressed, Lee started keeping track of his profession.

In Japan, the place Ohtani performed for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, he had been making a reputation for himself as a two-way wonderboy, defying typical knowledge that it was inconceivable for gamers to excel at each hitting and pitching in trendy skilled baseball. However may he do it in probably the most aggressive league on the earth?

Ohtani’s promising MLB debut with the Los Angeles Angels in 2018, through which he gained American League rookie of the yr, was adopted by two seasons of disappointing offensive manufacturing and accidents that shut down his pitching.

Shohei Ohtani talks to journalists.

Then-Angel Shohei Ohtani talks to reporters in Japan in October 2022.

(Koji Ueda / Related Press)

Lee prophesized, on an internet sports activities discussion board, that Ohtani was going to finish up a “neither-way participant.”

Then in 2021, with 46 dwelling runs and 156 strikeouts, Ohtani recorded what some regard as the best season the game has ever seen, incomes him his first American League MVP award and comparisons to Babe Ruth.

Lee was hooked.

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Within the late Nineteen Nineties, Lee was a younger author in Seoul blessed with early success, together with an award-winning debut novel at 22. He entered a screenplay competitors in 2001, profitable that too.

At a mixer after the awards ceremony, Lee met one of many judges, a then-unknown movie director named Bong Joon-ho. The director, who had been scouting some mountains for his upcoming film, wore a dirty safari jacket and smelled of sweat.

He personified all of the apprehensions that Lee had been feeling about his dream of a writing profession. Lee wished wealth and stability, to not scrabble round in obscurity hoping to beat impossibly lengthy odds. And so when the chance to hitch the broadcaster SBS got here alongside, he took it. Writing could be a sideline.

Shohei Ohtani pitches for the Angels.

Angels pitcher Shoehei Ohtani throws a pitch in opposition to the A’s at Anaheim Stadium.

(Los Angeles Instances)

Just a few years later, the movie Bong had been making, “Recollections of a Homicide,” got here out to nice acclaim, resulting in a profession that included the Oscar-winning 2019 movie “Parasite.”

Lee watched the movie loathing himself for having been blind to such nice expertise. Nonetheless, he pressed on, changing into the host of a well-liked present affairs program. His life grew to become an image of upper-class success: good vehicles, trendy artwork, a ritzy condominium with a lofty view of Seoul’s Han River.

However doubts concerning the path he had chosen deepened into existential disgrace.

“I used to be at all times setting achievable targets so I may reap their rewards — the sort of particular person mother and father need their kids to be: fast to realize success and averse to failure,” Lee stated. “However I’d always ask myself, ‘Why am I so shrewd? Why am I so craven? Why do I at all times compromise with myself?’”

He thought of that when he began watching Ohtani. It reminded him that pure, unbending readability of goal existed, simply not in himself.

In signing with the Angels in 2017, Ohtani had in impact forfeited round $200 million in potential earnings on account of guidelines that restricted worldwide prospects underneath the age of 25 to league minimal salaries — all so he may check his mettle within the majors that a lot quicker. And despite the fact that two-way play would proceed to pressure his physique in ways in which his accidents had been already displaying, Ohtani had held quick.

Lee Jae-ik sits among Ohtani memorabilia.

Lee Jae-ik goes via his baseball playing cards within the room he calls “the museum.”

(Jean Chung / For The Instances)

“As soon as Ohtani got here into my life, I surrendered to this sense, kind of in the way in which you’ll a faith,” Lee stated. “I felt comfy. I may simply go on with my life, accepting that I wasn’t made for that. I may very well be content material simply rooting for Ohtani and the nice issues he’s reaching.”

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After Ohtani’s beautiful 2021 season, Lee made a vow to himself that he would research, document and acquire the numerous components of Ohtani’s life. The hassle to date has price him round $380,000.

Deokjil — a time period for fervent shows of ardour for a pastime or superstar — supplied a welcome escape.

His son had gone off to varsity, abandoning stretches of vacancy as soon as crammed with rides to highschool. At work, Lee was kicked off his present affairs present after a tune he performed triggered accusations of partisan politicking throughout a tense election yr.

His sneakers at the moment are New Steadiness, his fits Hugo Boss — each Ohtani sponsors.

After seeing Ohtani modeling a Porsche Taycan, Lee purchased one in the identical coloration. When he realized Ohtani’s day-to-day automobile was a Porsche Cayenne, he purchased a kind of too. Then he began taking the bus to work — the place he remained a producer and host of a music program — so he may watch Ohtani movies on his cellphone throughout his commute.

Of the 300 or so collectibles, which embrace jerseys, signed balls, Japanese magazines and reams of baseball playing cards, Lee’s favourite is an autographed 2018 rookie card that includes Ohtani in crimson splashed in opposition to a chrome blue background, now price round $20,000.

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Baseball cards and bobbleheads of Shohei Ohtani.

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Baseball cards in protective covers.

3

Lee Jae-ik sits among Shohei Ohtani memorabilia.

1. Memorabilia. 2. Baseball playing cards. 3. Lee Jae-ik went from an informal fan to a Shohei Ohtani devotee with some 300 items of memorabilia, together with baseball playing cards and Japanese magazines. (Jean Chung / For The Instances)

“There’s something very majestic about this one,” Lee stated. “His gaze is trying far into the gap, like he’s about to leap ahead.”

He wrote a ebook about his conversion to Ohtani fandom, promoting round 3,000 copies.

“I used to largely write novels, however now that point has been halved,” he stated. “All my time and fervour shifted over.”

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There’s a well-known sports activities adage in South Korea that goes: “We will’t lose to Japan, even in a sport of rock, paper, scissors.” It’s a nod to unresolved animus over Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

In the summertime of 2022, as Lee debated whether or not to start out an Ohtani fan membership, tensions between the 2 international locations had been significantly excessive amid fallout from a South Korean Supreme Courtroom ruling that Japanese corporations ought to compensate victims of wartime compelled labor. Japan launched a commerce struggle, and South Korean customers responded with a boycott of Japanese items.

In on-line sports activities communities, Ohtani was steadily the goal of anti-Japanese sentiment. Lee determined to kind his membership anyway. He referred to as it Shotime Korea.

Quickly Lee started to note a tone shift when it got here to the famous person.

After final yr’s World Baseball Basic, Ohtani stated he hoped Japan’s victory would elevate up baseball in Taiwan, China and South Korea too, affirming what many like Lee noticed after they watched him: Essentially the most sensational Asian athlete the world had ever seen transcended nationality and dominated probably the most American of sports activities in a means that kicked apart the same old racial stereotypes — workhorse, technician, genetic anomaly.

“It’s nothing that we’ve seen earlier than,” stated Daniel Kim, a South Korea-based baseball commentator for ESPN and a former scout for the Cleveland Guardians. “He’s received very loyal followers right here in Korea and that normally doesn’t occur with a Japanese athlete, so it’s very refreshing to see.”

The fan membership slowly grew.

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A signed ball.

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An Ohtani bobblehead.

1. A ball signed by Ohtani. 2. An Ohtani bobblehead. (Jean Chung / For The Instances)

Members had been captivated by Ohtani’s monastic self-discipline, the lore of how he lived in a crew dormitory whereas making $2 million a yr in Japan, or how he gave his whole wage to his mother and father to handle, residing off a month-to-month $1,000 allowance. He picks up trash on the sector. He doesn’t hock loogies. He’s intensely aggressive however with none of the suffocating self-seriousness or egotism of so many superstars.

One second particularly stands proud for Lee.

It’s Sept. 29, 2022, and Ohtani has virtually pitched a no-hitter in opposition to the Oakland Athletics. However within the eighth inning, with simply 4 outs left, Angels shortstop Liván Soto fumbles a grounder hit by Conner Capel. Soto, who was simply promoted to the majors, appears to be like crushed. However Ohtani playfully consoles him, with no hint of frustration on his face.

“Watching Ohtani stay with such a powerful sense of who he’s jogs my memory of the regrets I’ve had in my life,” stated Heo Jeong-koo, a 53-year-old bus driver and fan membership member.

Lee Jae-ik inside a car.

Lee Jae-ik purchased a Porsche Cayenne after studying that Shohei Ohtani drove one.

(Jean Chung / For The Instances)

He wished he hadn’t spent a lot of his youth attempting to stay as much as a super of aggressive masculinity imposed on his technology. He wished that he had been gentler together with his sons.

“I handled them harshly as a result of I purchased into sure concepts about how males ought to behave and I do know that harm them,” Heo stated. “However Ohtani isn’t like that. He was a superb child. He exhibits you that dropping your mood doesn’t assist something, and he made his personal success by being that means. I really like that about him.”

Heo walks round decked out in Ohtani gear, proselytizing to anybody who will pay attention. He research Ohtani’s habits from highschool, making use of them to his personal life. His mates have instructed him: “Be careful, Jeong-koo, that is going to show into a faith for those who’re not cautious.”

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The fan membership now has round 500 members, however Lee expects many extra after the season openers.

Other than shopping for some advert house in a subway station final yr, he has prevented aggressively selling the group.

“I need folks to hunt it out organically,” he stated. “I don’t need folks searching for free stuff from the giveaways.”

Ohtani fans line up with banners and handheld signs reading "Goatani Go."

Lee Jae-ik, third from proper, waits to greet Ohtani at Incheon Worldwide Airport on Friday.

(Jean Chung / For The Instances)

The membership has had two offline conferences, the second one at a rented convention room the place Lee, in his blue Dodgers hoodie and cap, paced round by the white board emceeing an Ohtani trivia sport, reviewing the main points for the airport welcoming occasion and moderating a half-hour dialog about Ohtani’s new spouse.

“Do males even have this sense? This sense of loss?” one of many feminine attendees requested.

“Yeah, we do,” Lee stated. “I don’t know why I’m so enthusiastic about another person’s partner. However perhaps it’s good that he received married. No distractions to his baseball.”

Even in particular person, the members refer to 1 one other by their on-line handles. Lee’s interprets to “the museum director” on account of his huge assortment of Ohtani memorabilia.

Some have crossed over from Ok-pop fandom, together with one lady who had managed to purchase three tickets for the season openers, regardless of seats having been bought out in minutes.

“The trick is to go to a PC cafe with a superb web connection and have every little thing arrange so you possibly can pull the set off instantly,” she defined.

“I’ve expertise from doing this as a BTS fan.”

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There is part of Lee that acknowledges all of this was a calculated effort angled towards sooner or later assembly Ohtani. His biggest want is to interview him.

On the airport, Lee held a signed copy of his ebook, which he inscribed: “I wrote this ebook for you.”

He and the opposite followers had been ready for hours now, and the preliminary bustle had died all the way down to a drowsy murmur. The banner, within the afternoon daylight, virtually seemed radiant.

Shohei Ohtani walks past fans with his entourage.

Shohei Ohtani arrives to the greetings of followers at Incheon Worldwide Airport on Friday.

(Jean Chung / For The Instances)

Lee checked the flight tracker on his cellphone. “They’re shut,” he reported.

At 2:47 p.m., Ohtani was the primary of the Dodgers to look, a head taller than the remainder of his entourage. His eyes forged concerning the roaring scene earlier than him earlier than touchdown on the banner. Lee is adamant their gazes met, and for a second, it seemed as if he had been strolling straight at them.

Then Ohtani smiled, waved and disappeared via the door.


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