Matt Kamlet, CBSLA.com
LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Only two seasons ago, Dodger Stadium experienced the lowest attendance it had seen since 2000.
From 2010 to 2011, Chavez Ravine saw a 17.6% drop in attendance, leaving the essence of a little league ball park in the grand stadium that holds 56,000.
An under-performing team on the field, along with the passionately expanded boycott against the financially-blundered owner at the time, led to numbers that even Vin Scully sounded as though he didn’t want to say when reporting the day’s attendance.
Then Magic happened.
Magic Johnson, Stan Kasten, and Mark Walter caught the team in free-fall (although some would argue they hit the ground), and lifted them in more than simple finances. The team, and the stadium, became energized overnight, as the new owners encouraged reasons for fans to become excited, enthusiastic, and frankly — proud.
Possibly the largest personification of this new energy — this “New Blue” — is also one of the team’s newest additions.
When the Dodgers won the bid on South Korean hurler Hyun-Jin Ryu, half of Dodger fans felt it was nothing more than the new ownership flexing it’s muscle, the other half called a 2013 pennant race, and nobody knew what to expect.
On November 9, 2012, Ryu’s South Korean club, The Hanwha Eagles, accepted a bid from the Dodgers that was reported to be upwards of $25 million. However, the winning bid merely gave the Dodgers the right to negotiate a contract with with the seven-time Korean All-Star. Granted, the bid money was to be returned to the Dodgers if a contract agreement was not reached. Nevertheless, the new show of financial aggressiveness was, for some fans, interpreted as a similar type of careless spending that landed Frank McCourt’s name in the bottom of every bottle as Dodger fans lamented over the state of their boys in blue at the time.
Ryu signed with the Dodgers in December to a 6-year, $36 million deal.
While many fans were excited, some were still unsure of how the South Korean would adapt to Major League Baseball in the states. Is he in the right shape? Can he adjust to a different sized ball? Can he handle the competition?
Ryu lost around 15 pounds within the first couple weeks of his first Spring Training, and in his first outing as a Dodger, gave up a triple and struck out a batter in a scoreless inning against the Chicago White Sox.
By the end of Spring Training, he was perfect through four innings in his last outing before the regular season, retiring 12 straight Angels, not to mention the final 23 total batters he faced in Spring Training.
Now, hardly 1/8 into his first regular season, Ryu, who is the first Korean to go to the majors directly from Korea’s top league, is inspiring fans to show up in the same demographic way “El Toro” did in 1980.
Korean fans specifically are coming to games to watch the left-hander, who has struck out 26 batters while walking five through his first four starts, and show, above all, their enthusiasm and pride — and not just at Dodger Stadium.
Cameras focused on Ryu’s family, as well as a large group of South Korean students from Arizona State University in the stands, as they reacted to the 6 ft 2 pitcher striking out nine and pitching into the seventh inning in a 7-5 win over the Diamondbacks at Chase Field in Phoenix. Ryu even went 3-for-3 from the plate, including a double and a run scored.
April 25’s start at Citi Field in New York, which is only one subway stop away from a large Korean neighborhood, according to the Associated Press, saw Korean fans in great numbers at the ball park, holding signs and being vocal — very vocal — in favor of Ryu.
Ryu turned in his best performance to date, striking out eight batters, and giving up just a single run off three hits through seven innings of work. Numbers like that from a rookie (to the major leagues) tend to catch the eye of those who appreciate the game.
Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times reported that Ryu has even teamed up with Cincinnati Reds outfielder and fellow South Korean Shin Soo Choo as a spokesman for Hanmi Bank, which is specialized in the Korean-American community.
The World Baseball Classic, which Ryu skipped in order to prepare for his debut season in the majors, has shown that baseball is increasingly becoming more appreciated throughout the world.
Ultimately, it is far too early into the season to either claim or deny the success of Hyun-Jin Ryu’s inaugural season in the major leagues, as dictated by statistics.
But, just as the owners found more than one way to revive the Dodgers, there is more than one way to be successful through sports.
Ryu brings with him a new, yet dearly welcomed, following.
Fans in Dodger Stadium, as diverse as the city of Los Angeles itself, are themselves the perfect reminder of the spirit of what makes the game great; the idea that so many differences disappear from the moment the opening pitch is thrown and the organ starts to play, and for nine innings, all is right.
The Dodgers are no stranger to introducing an array of cultures to the great game of baseball, and as long as the owners continue to live up to their goal of internationally building their farm system, the sounds of Dodger Stadium will continue to sound less and less like 2011, and more and more like 2013.