When the news broke that Hyun-Jin Ryu had signed with a team not called the Los Angeles Dodgers, a lot of emotions we’re swirling — we had lost our loveable Korean Monster.
If there is one element that has distinguished the Dodgers franchise compared to others, it is their ahead-of-the-curve embrace of racial and ethnic diversity on the field. The most obvious is Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe blazing a trail for black players right through the color barrier. In the 1990s, Hideo Nomo inched open the door for Japanese players that Masanori Murakami unlocked with San Francisco in the ‘60s, thus setting the stage for Ichiro Suzuki to blow it off its hinges in 2001.
An overlooked area where the Dodgers have been trailblazers has been for Korean pitchers. They can lay claim to the very first, Chan Ho Park, who toed the rubber in Los Angeles from 1994 to his All-Star season in 2001. Park was stellar, but in 2012, the team acquired an even better Korean ace in Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Ryu indeed $36M for 6 yrs. with Dodgers, as first reported by @JonHeymanCBS. Total outlay, including $25.7M posting fee: $61.7M.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 9, 2012
As I’ve mentioned before, 2013 was the season that rekindled my dormant passion for the Dodgers. It was the year Yasiel Puig barreled onto the scene with his cannon arm and muscular bat, and Clayton Kershaw continued his skyrocketing ascent as the best pitcher of the decade. Yet the player that earned my greatest affection was the portly Incheon native. It wasn’t just because he was a brilliant pitcher; it was just as much for his unique affability, one that made his diversification of the team all the sweeter.
While Park was intense, Ryu was the polar opposite. Far from drop kicking an opposing player, his persona was cuddly and adorable, best embodied by his language barrier-defying, cross-cultural bromance with Puig. His visibility as a Dodgers star intersected with the influx of Korean culture in the U.S. this decade, with visits from K-Pop stars like Psy and Yoongi:
GET IT DONE, HYUN JIN RYU! ???
You're having an amazing season!
– Hyun Jin's first career #AllStarGame
– First Korean-born pitcher start ^
– Pitched a scoreless 1st inning
??? ?????! ?
BTS Army and your Victory Fairy Yoongi are cheering for you! ???~ pic.twitter.com/nGo7u4aAwD
— bts paved the way (@pchbnny) July 10, 2019
Not surprisingly, Ryu himself became a star in his homeland. He used that fame to try his hand at music, of course. He married broadcaster Bae Jihyeon. Best of all, though, were the noodle commercials. What a joy those noodle commercials were.
The only stain on Ryu’s legacy in Los Angeles was, obviously, his frequent injuries. Every pitcher, Kershaw included, has to contend with the limitations of an injured list stint here or there. But after his breakout seasons in 2013 and 2014, Ryu missed all of 2015 and pitched just once in 2016 due to elbow and shoulder injuries. (To be honest, I borderline forgot he existed during this stretch.) He was more visible in 2017, but didn’t pitch well enough to make a playoff roster loaded with four starting aces and a deep bullpen.
Yet it was also his propensity for injury that set the stage for one of the greatest (and most overlooked) Dodger stories of the decade. In 2018, Ryu suffered his most brutal injury yet: a groin injury in May that tore the muscle right off the bone. He went to the 60-day injured list, seemingly unlikely to return.
Yet somehow, he was able to overcome it and return in August, boosting the team down the stretch as they barely won the NL West. He finished the season with a 1.97 ERA, and went on to become the first Korean pitcher to start a World Series game.
In 2019, he finally turned those glimpses of dominance into a full season that almost earned him a Cy Young Award. While he would lose out on that honor to Jacob deGrom, he did at least get his first All-Star selection. And deservedly so, with an MLB-best 2.32 ERA and walks-per-nine innings ratio (1.183). He even managed to sustain one of the longest scoreless inning streaks in franchise history.
It’s tempting to call Ryu’s departure the end of an era, and in many ways it is. With his signing elsewhere, Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen are now the only players left from the 2013 team, for one. Of course, the actual ending of this current era of Dodger baseball is far from over. But one day, when it is and it’s being written about as a concluded era of history, there is a good chance Hyun-Jin Ryu will be reduced to a supporting player whose memory is crowded out by bigger names. (Think Jim Gilliam as opposed to Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Maury Wills in the ‘60s.)
Yet that would be a shame. At his healthiest, Ryu was elite, a reality he unfortunately didn’t illustrate to the highest degree until his final season in Dodger blue. He helped solidify a rotation that deepened the franchise’s already extensive prestige in starting pitching. Perhaps more importantly, he was a buoyant cultural envoy for the franchise, one whose appeal was widespread.
Best of luck to you in your Canadian endeavors, Hyun-Jin. Stay healthy, chow down on those noodles, and continue to make a team blad in blue and white proud. Since you’re in Toronto now, though, you might want to add these guys alongside K-Pop to your playlist. One of them will be watching you from behind home plate almost every home game!