Local South Korean fans at games ahead of Major League Baseball's season-opening series in Seoul have all but adopted Japanese two-star Shohei Ohtani as one of their own.

It is a shift that would have seemed improbable 18 years ago, when Korean fans taunted Japan's biggest star, Ichiro Suzuki, during the hotly contested 2006 World Baseball Classic.

"Shohei Ohtani is my role model because he is very kind to the fans, and has very brilliant skills," said Seoul resident Hwang Dong Un after leaving Monday's game between Ohtani's Los Angeles Dodgers and South Korea's national team.

All around Seoul's Gocheok Sky Dome on Monday, fans could be seen wearing Los Angeles Dodgers shirts with Ohtani's No. 17, while many demonstrated their complicated fandom by wearing Dodgers shirts under their ones for Team Korea and vice versa.

Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Dodgers strikes out swinging in the first inning of an exhibition game against South Korea's Kiwoom Heroes at Seoul's Gocheok Sky Dome on March 17, 2024, prior to the Dodgers' season-opening two-game series against the San Diego Padres on March 20 and 21. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Kim Do Yeon, a 27-year-old fan of Seoul's Kiwoom Heroes, said "Ohtani is baseball itself."

Lee Hyun Seo, a 20-year-old from Seoul, said she was one of those pulling for Ohtani to do well, and not only because of his two-way prowess as both a star hitter and pitcher.

"He's good at baseball," she said. "But I think he's a player who strives a lot outside of baseball and offers a lot for people to learn from in terms of personality and things like that. I think it's nice to see an Asian player like him go to MLB and do well, even if it's a Japanese player from a different country."

Han Ji Seok, a 28-year-old KIA Tigers fan who traveled from Jeonju, said she was familiar with the story of how Ohtani outlined his goals on a chart when he entered high school and remained focused on those ambitions, and she, too, expressed hope that people learn from him.

"I think there are many things baseball fans can learn from him," she said.

The overwhelming sense one gets is that the Japanese two-way star is something special not just for Japan or even baseball.

"Ohtani is Japanese, but he is a baseball player. And Koreans love baseball. So, I don't think anybody says, 'Ohtani is Japanese, so I don't like him.' Instead, it is like, 'He is a baseball player with the best skills, so I love him.' That's how Korean fans think," Hwang said. "He is a hero in Korea."

In 2006, it might have been hard to imagine a Japanese player earning that kind of sentiment from Korean fans.

Fans show T-shirts of Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani at a goods store in Seoul on March 19, 2024. (Kyodo)

After a few WBC press conferences where some reporters did their best to stir up nationalistic sentiment with pointed questions to Suzuki and Korean pitching hero Park Chan Ho, South Korean players celebrated on Tokyo Dome's pitcher's mound after an exciting come-from-behind victory.

"Every Korean fan knows that game," Hwang said.

Japan and Korea played three times in that inaugural WBC, with Japan losing twice. During one game, a fan's drink spilled onto Suzuki, drenching him as he chased a ball in foul territory. Three years later, however, the vitriol had cooled.

The 2009 final at Dodger Stadium, when Japan clinched the championship in extra-innings against South Korea on a walk-off hit by Suzuki of all people, saw fans on both sides competing only to out-cheer each other, and ended in displays of mutual respect.

And Ohtani is a symbol of where it might lead. Where Suzuki had tried to rally his teammates by publicly encouraging them to thrash Japan's Asian opponents in 2006, Ohtani came to Seoul expressing his admiration for South Korea's fans.

"We (Japan and South Korea) have a bad history, but through baseball we can become more familiar with each other," Hwang said.

Kim, who said she spent a year in Osaka and was wearing a Team Korea shirt over a Dodgers' one, was optimistic of the value of her homeland's baseball ties with Japan.

"I like some of the Japanese players and I love my Team Korea," she said. "They play against each other many times, and those games are so much fun. They also help each other improve their baseball abilities."

"Japanese baseball may be much better (now), but a game against Japan gives the Korean team extra powers. So it's a great relationship."

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