The Korea Herald


Ohtani appreciates warm reception from S. Korean fans

By Yonhap

Published : March 16, 2024 - 17:06

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Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Dodgers smiles at a press conference at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on Saturday ahead of a workout for Major League Baseball's Seoul Series. (Yonhap) Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Dodgers smiles at a press conference at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on Saturday ahead of a workout for Major League Baseball's Seoul Series. (Yonhap)

Given the oft-bitter sporting rivalry between South Korea and Japan, it is not often that an athlete from one country attains as much respect and popularity in the other as the Japanese baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani has in South Korea.

For the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger, the feeling is mutual, as he prepares to play historic Major League Baseball (MLB) games in Seoul.

Ohtani arrived in South Korea on Friday to great fanfare, drawing boisterous cheers from hundreds of fans gathered at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. There is even an Ohtani fan club in South Korea, called "Shotime Korea," after one of the two-way phenom's nicknames.

"Japan and Korea, they've always had a great rivalry when it comes to sports. I've always watched the games between Japan and Korea and I always respected, looked up to Team Korea and the Korean players," Ohtani said through an interpreter at a press conference at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. It will be the setting for the two-game Seoul Series between the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres on Wednesday and Thursday.

"So being accepted like this and welcomed is a very good feeling," Ohtani added. "And I want to put on a very good show for everyone."

Ohtani won two American League MVP awards for the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 2021 and 2023, putting on once-in-a-generation type of performances on the mound and at the plate. He then signed a 10-year, US$700 million contract to join the Dodgers as a free agent, sending shockwaves throughout MLB.

With such a massive contract, Ohtani will be playing under intense scrutiny. He said he will take it in stride and keep his focus on the field.

"I appreciate all the attention. Obviously, attention is always great, being a baseball player and being able to play with these great guys next to me," Ohtani said, referring to two other former MVPs on the podium, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. "I'm really used to the attention, but I just try to focus on what's in front of me, whatever it is."

This is Ohtani's second trip to South Korea as a baseball player. He represented Japan at the under-18 baseball world championship in Seoul in 2012.

"Back then, I was still in high school so the circumstances were a little different from now. But at the time, Korea was one of my favorite countries," Ohtani said. "I was really excited to play here and I was glad to be able to come back to Korea to play baseball again and hopefully, it will be another great experience."

Freeman said the Dodgers' acquisition of Ohtani, along with starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow among others, will only put that much more pressure on the Dodgers to deliver on their preseason hype.

"I don't know if anybody can get used to this but this is exciting," the first baseman said. "When you have this, that means something exciting happened in the offseason."

Betts said traveling to South Korea to start the new season could be a good team-bonding experience because the players will spend a lot of time together, exploring the new city and new culture.

But it's also important to remember the purpose of this trip -- to win games.

"I think we have a team full of guys that understand and know that the expectations are high and it's a privilege and we know we have to show up and be ready to play, especially after the last couple of years when we came up short," Betts said. "So it's really important for us to enjoy ourselves while we're here but definitely understand that we're here to work, too." (Yonhap)