On July 25, the Colorado Rockies of Major League Baseball traded for Korean-born relief pitcher Seunghwan Oh to help with their push for the playoffs. Since the trade, Oh, who is one of 21 Korean born MLB players, has continued to play at an elite level.
Oh rapidly rose to stardom for the Samsung Lions of Daegu, South Korea. In his nine years with the team, he won five championships and was twice the MVP of the Korea Series, also serving as a key contributor in South Korea’s historic 2008 Olympic Gold Medal in baseball. He left for Japan in 2014, helping the Hanshin Tigers of Nishinomiya reach the Japan Series while also winning playoff MVP. In 2016, he left Japan to play with the St. Louis Cardinals of the MLB. Oh now chases the goal of being the first player to play in the championship series of Korean, Japanese, and American baseball.
Since Oh embarked on his international career, he has spurred cultural, especially linguistic, exchange. When he first joined the Hanshin Tigers, the team’s manager set up Korean classes and encouraged teammates to learn Korean greetings. Now in the United States, Oh has teamed up with Korean American interpreter Eugene Koo to help him fit in with teams on which he is the only Korean player. While Oh and Koo have worked on Oh’s English, Oh has helped fellow players and coaches learn Korean phrases, while sharing with them the wisdom he has gathered from a decorated career across three professional leagues.
As MLB players have become increasingly multicultural, the backgrounds of baseball fans have diversified as well. As a part of cultural exchange, some MLB teams hold Heritage Night events, and Korean Heritage Night is one of them. The Texas Rangers, for example, have celebrated this event annually since their first Korean Heritage Night four years ago. Korean Heritage Nights have provided a variety of performances, such as a demonstration of Taekwondo and Samulnori, at the start of the game to introduce Korean culture to the US public. Regardless of victory or defeat, baseball fans from both countries are brought together by the game and performances.
Using baseball to share Korean culture and encourage international goodwill between Korea and the United States is important because there are about 2 million Korean Americans in the United States. More than
30,000 Korean Americans live in Colorado where Seunghwan Oh’s Rockies are based. Korean Americans make up 14% of the Asian American population in the state, the 4th highest rate in the country. Last month’s Little League World Championship game, held in Pennsylvania, featured teams from Hawai‘i and South Korea. Increasing exchange in sports events between Korea and the United States helps strengthen the close connection between the two countries.
Luke Pluta-Ehlers is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago studying Global Studies and Geography.
Sinae Yu is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a young fellow of Asan Academy. She studied English Language & Literature and Philosophy at Seoul National University.
[Image courtesy of the Colorado Rockies]