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Yankees Magazine: World Team

It's hard to appreciate how huge the Yankees are until you consider their global reach in places such as South Korea
Yankees Magazine

It's 4:25 in the morning, March 30, on my side of the planet, and I'm already working on my second cup of coffee as I wait for the YES Network intro to begin. I've been awake since 1 a.m., feeding off of caffeine and adrenaline. Another long winter without live, televised Yankees baseball is about to end. It's always harder than I expect, but I've survived.

Baseball's season is long, and it's involved, and it's tough to stay with it under the best of conditions. For me, following along from Seoul, South Korea, is just a bit harder. MLB.TV is a godsend, but there's a stark time difference separating my desk and the Bronx -- 13 hours, to be exact (14 hours when daylight saving time ends). I've somehow gotten used to it.

It's 4:25 in the morning, March 30, on my side of the planet, and I'm already working on my second cup of coffee as I wait for the YES Network intro to begin. I've been awake since 1 a.m., feeding off of caffeine and adrenaline. Another long winter without live, televised Yankees baseball is about to end. It's always harder than I expect, but I've survived.

Baseball's season is long, and it's involved, and it's tough to stay with it under the best of conditions. For me, following along from Seoul, South Korea, is just a bit harder. MLB.TV is a godsend, but there's a stark time difference separating my desk and the Bronx -- 13 hours, to be exact (14 hours when daylight saving time ends). I've somehow gotten used to it.

The first pitch comes in at 5:09 a.m. It's the first of many thousands of pitches I'll be watching throughout the 2018 Yankees season. I just have to manage my schedule a bit differently from most fans. But even though it's sometimes a lonely pursuit, I know I'm not alone. Sometimes, no matter how big you think the Yankees really are, you need to step back and check out the bird's-eye view from the opposite point on the globe to really understand it.

***

I was born in Seoul and lived in South Korea until sixth grade. In June 2002, my family moved to North Haven, Connecticut, which felt like being in the middle of a battlefield -- Red Sox to the north of me, Yankees to the south. I had to choose a side, and I handled it as scientifically as possible: More of my friends cheered for the Yankees than the Red Sox. Thus began a life writing about baseball -- primarily, the Yankees -- that I never really saw coming.

My love for the game -- and Major League Baseball in particular -- is not uncommon in Korea. When I was growing up, people paid attention to every Chan Ho Park start. As the number of Korean Major Leaguers increased -- Byung-Hyun Kim, Hee-Seop Choi, Jae-Weong Seo, to name a few -- so did MLB's presence in the Korean media. Seunghoon Han, a senior manager and former MLB editor at Naver (a Korean website akin to Yahoo!), says that the local players' success ignited MLB exposure in the Korean press and, thus, created a growing appetite for coverage.

"When we talk about the 1990s, I'd say it was the prime time for the newspaper companies," Han says. "Not only was the audience still buying their paper, but also players like Park and Kim were successful in the United States, which means they became national celebrities -- or even heroes -- in South Korea. That means, naturally, sending more correspondents to the States."

In the 2010s, a new wave of Korean athletes such as Hyun-Jin Ryu, Seung-Hwan Oh and Jae-Gyun Hwang have played in the Majors. Meanwhile, many of the same shifts in coverage familiar to fans in the United States have reached Korea, as well. There's more focus on internet writing, which can be disseminated more widely and quickly.

Park was the first Korean player to suit up for the Yankees, signing with the team after the Bombers' 2009 championship. Han says it was a very exciting moment in Korean baseball history. "It was something special for many fans here in South Korea," he says. "Park, a national hero, was entering his final chapter of his career, and joined the most well-known franchise in the history of baseball. So why wouldn't we be excited?"

Despite high anticipation, Park did not pull his weight in pinstripes. In 27 relief appearances, Park posted a 5.60 ERA and was designated for assignment by the end of July. He was picked up on waivers by the Pirates and finished his Major League career in Pittsburgh. Flash forward to 2015, when Korea-born Rob Refsnyder (birth name Jeong-Tae Kim) reached the Majors with the Yankees. Refsnyder -- who was adopted by American parents and eventually became a fifth-round pick by New York out of the University of Arizona in the 2012 MLB Draft - emerged as one of the system's top prospects, ranking fourth in MLB Pipeline's 2015 Yankees prospect list after hitting a combined .318/.387/.497 in Double-A and Triple-A in 2014. In 2017, he was joined by Ji-Man Choi, an Incheon native who appeared in 54 games for the Angels in 2016. Choi signed a Minor League contract with the Yankees before last season and reached the Majors in July when the team needed first base depth, homering in each of his first two games in pinstripes.

***

As Big League baseball was capturing the attention of new Korean fans, its fashion arm was seeing similar growth. Walk the streets today, and you'll see all sorts of MLB gear -- hats, backpacks, jackets, you name it.

Tamar Herman, a music columnist for Billboard and a Forbes contributor, said that MLB saw its profile raised in Korea when K-Pop acts started to model their threads. "They definitely saw a major boost in popularity and name recognition," Herman says. In 2015, a popular boy band EXO wore Yankees hats during promotion for its "Love Me Right Back" single. Herman points to that moment as a game-changer. "That seemed to be when a lot of people began wearing Major League Baseball gear in Korea," she says.

The Yankees have been entrenched at the forefront of the trend. Two of the biggest contemporary urban clothing brands in Korea -- New Era and MLB Korea -- feature the team's products heavily in their promotions and stores. In mid-April, MLB Korea listed 260 Yankees products on its "New Arrivals" page, pacing the field by a wide margin. The Los Angeles Dodgers, another team popular in Korea due to their connections with Chan Ho Park and Hyun-Jin Ryu, had 49 listed.

"When it comes to baseball hats, New York Yankees products make up more than half of our total sales," says New Era Korea's marketing manager, Seung-Eon Kim. "While the New York Yankees are a baseball club, the people here not only see it as one, but also as an essential fashion item and symbol. Everyone knows that it is a baseball team's logo but they also perceive it as something fashionable and cool, or something that is ingrained in the hip-hop culture. The younger audience seems to favor the Yankees logo over others. Not only is it a team with deep history, but also the logo itself is well known to people beyond baseball terms.

"Another big thing is that there are a lot of pictures out there of American celebrities wearing Yankees hats. That helped the team's image get introduced to Korea."

But it's not just Korea; the league has seen an upward trend in Asian sales for the past five years, which Noah Garden, MLB's executive vice president of commerce, largely attributes to "the investments and creativity of our local and worldwide licensing partners in Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong."

"MLB features some of the most recognizable sports teams in the world, including the Yankees," Garden adds. "Our brands transcend fan support and have become fashionable in many international markets, leaving increased exposure and recognition for all 30 MLB clubs across the multitude of consumer product categories."

And the league plans to continue stimulating its customers with an aggressive approach. "MLB's licensing success in Asia requires a continued focus on creating innovative products, designs and marketing activities," Garden says. "We will continue to increase exposure of our players, teams and games throughout the world, including Asia."

Video: TOR@NYY: Korean TV calls Choi's first HR with Yankees

***

The Yankees, of course, also have their footprints in current Korean baseball. The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) has been experiencing an upward trend since the Korean national team enjoyed a series of international tournament successes. The squad reached the semifinals of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, won the gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and finished as the runner-up in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. According to data from the KBO website, overall attendance grew from 3.04 million in 2006 to 8.4 million in 2018, a 276 percent uptick that would make anyone working to develop the game swoon.

The KBO consists of 10 clubs, and each is allowed to have three foreign players. Among them this year are several players that played for the Yankees organization -- Jimmy Paredes (Doosan Bears), Hector Noesi (Kia Tigers), Adonis Garcia (LG Twins) and Esmil Rogers.

Rogers now pitches for the Nexen Heroes, a team that plays in Seoul's Gocheok Sky Dome. He first pitched in Korea in 2015 with the Hanwha Eagles, posting a 6-2 record with a 2.97 ERA, but an elbow injury in 2016 led to his release. Rogers came back to Korea for 2018 and impressed the Heroes enough to be their opening day starter. He says that people in Korea do take notice of his Yankees career.

"One of the first things that people ask me is how it felt to pitch at the Yankee Stadium," Rogers says. He always answers the same way: "It was great -- a really great experience."

Even nearly 7,000 miles away, Rogers keeps up with his former Yankees teammates such as Dellin Betances, Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez. He still roots for them. "I thank God for giving me the opportunity to play for the Yankees," he says, echoing the famous Joe DiMaggio quote. "Any player wants to play for this team, and I got to play there a couple years -- play with A-Rod, play with [Derek] Jeter. It was a great experience that I had with those guys, and I never forget it from my mind."

In Korea, Rogers plays the same game that he has played since he was a kid, but the KBO does require some adjustments. "They play a little bit different baseball here," he says. "You hear a lot of music when you're pitching, no matter what. They do a lot of cheering here -- cheerleaders and all that kind of stuff during the game -- and we don't do that in the U.S. The baseball in the United States is a little bit quieter and more focused. I think that's the difference."

Rogers isn't imagining things. Seunghoon Han, the former MLB editor, says that "when it comes to in-venue experiences, people look forward to the way of rooting for your team -- cheerleaders, giant amplifiers and so on." There are separate sections for home and visiting fans, and they have their own cheering sections to enjoy the game. The cheerleaders dance to the fight songs and offer custom chants for every hitter, making it a very fun atmosphere not only for fans, but also for the players. In a way, it's closer to the scene at a college football game in the States.

Foreigners such as Rogers receive much more attention from the Korean media and fans than they would as unheralded players in the U.S. And it's a preferred destination for a lot of players on the margins. The majority get paid more than the $555,000 Major League minimum, and the exotic locale can offer a fresh start. But the league's level of play is more advanced than one might think. Among the 30 foreign players signed to play in the KBO before the 2017 season, only 11 remained in Korea for 2018. Rogers, though, has proven to be a desired commodity.

***

Rogers couldn't be more fascinating to someone in my seat. We both straddle these two totally different worlds. For me, following both the local KBO and the far-off action in the United States is double duty, albeit a fun one. I wake up to watch MLB games, and I go to sleep after wrapping up KBO action. In between, I try to live a life and even, occasionally, sleep. It is not the easiest schedule to keep up with, but it's what I love to do. From thousands of miles away, I engage with and participate in the nonstop, intense Yankees community, particularly through my work for the website River Avenue Blues, which I began writing for in April 2015. I have struck up friendships with David Cone and Michael Kay over Twitter, and it paid off when I visited the YES Network booth during a trip to the United States last August. I was flabbergasted to meet people in person that I've "known" since before I even learned to speak English.

In the booth, all I could think of was how strange and unlikely the whole thing was. How did I get here? I'm just a writer from Korea who loves watching the Yankees.

But maybe I just never learned to be romantic enough about the whole endeavor. Maybe this is what it's all supposed to be about. Baseball is universal, and the Yankees especially. There's almost no way that someone 20 years ago could do what I do now. I'm lucky to be in the right time and the right place. I constantly think back to when I worked as an assistant producer for MLB Network during the 2017 World Baseball Classic and got the chance to chat with Didi Gregorius at Gocheok Sky Dome. The Yankees' shortstop was there as a member of the Netherlands squad that eventually made it to the semifinals of the tournament. I got to ask him about what he did in Korea ("I was just walking around. You've got to experience everything when you're in a different country."), if he ate any fried chicken ("Nah, that stuff's bad for you!"), and his goal for the season ("Win a ring -- That's it.").

When I wasn't talking to him or watching him play, I saw him signing autographs for fans, chatting with reporters from Korea, Netherlands, Taiwan and the United States, never turning down a request. It was quite a sight to see people from different cultures and backgrounds harmonize over one thing: baseball. Some 7,000 miles from his Major League home, which, itself, is 4,000 miles from his birthplace, Gregorius was living his everyday life.

The Yankees' mystique transcends the distance; somehow, it casts a shadow over the entire globe. I can understand why some American fans might think that it would be impossible for the Yankees to get any bigger than they are. This team is a monolith, beloved by many, hated by others. It lords over the league, and even sports in general.

The world, though, is a big place, and where I sit, it's already tomorrow. The Yankees are everywhere. And the possibilities are limitless.

This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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