Clues subtly revealed themselves as spring training marched on. The Japanese software company Jigsaw showed up on Zoom call backdrops when Yu Darvish answered media questions. At the Padres store, jerseys arrived with the Osaka native’s name splashed across the back in his native language.
The All-Star pitcher and 2020 NL Cy Young runner-up offers the baseball team more than just his stunning array of, at last count, 11 pitches. Darvish and Korean star Ha-seong Kim create a two-pronged opportunity for the Padres to make an unprecedented Pacific Rim push.
With Darvish, the sponsorship deal with Jigsaw and another with Nitto Tire materialized. Kim, a nearly $34 million infield investment just beginning his American baseball journey, presents a chance to mine more fans and dollars. Think targeted tourism packages. Think unique merchandise. Think fresh broadcast advertising. Think ticket sales to new fans, once COVID-19 attendance restrictions fade.
Though just two players on a 40-man roster, the pair has the potential to produce outsized influence in a range of untapped ways as the Padres turn the corner — an expensive, unprecedented corner — toward sustained postseason contention.
“We’ve researched and understand Japanese and Korean nationals do enjoy coming to San Diego,” Padres CEO Erik Greupner said. “The West Coast of the U.S. is reasonably proximate to the Pacific Rim region. We’ve got a lot of attractions. We’ve got the weather, the coast. Petco Park is known as one of the best ballpark experiences.
“Baseball’s also a really important part of the Japanese and Korean cultures. So, the opportunity for somebody to come to San Diego and watch a player who’s rightly a source of pride for their country and then, it completes that value proposition or package for a tourist.”
Funny takes and fandom
Consider the reach of Darvish.
The 34-year-old star claims more than 2.5 million Twitter followers and another 571,000 YouTube subscribers. On Instagram, where Darvish collected 492,000 followers, a simple Instagram photo with the entirety of the post being the one-word name of the Japanese dish, Sukiyaki, piled up more than 20,000 likes last month.
The Los Angeles Times reported Darvish’s YouTube channel generated $43,000 last November alone. He donated half the revenue to cancer research and the rest to a nonprofit that supports single-mother households. He posts about food, investing, video games and cyberbullying, among a diverse range of topics.
“Maybe it’s because I’m just really honestly speaking my mind,” said Darvish, when asked to pinpoint his bulging daily audience through interpreter Shingo Horie. “I guess people like that. That could be the reason. … And maybe some people who aren’t necessarily a big fan of me are keeping an eye on me and checking out what I’m saying.”
The impact of Kim remains to be seen, but there is an entire country beyond our borders waiting to find out.
Korean journalist Saboo Lee recently paused at the Padres’ spring training facility while watching Kim navigate drills. He left no doubt about Kim’s brand in his home country, while framing the potential in Southern California.
“Most famous in KBO. No. 1,” said Lee, whose aunt lives in Carlsbad. “It’s different than a pitcher, because of the fielding and hitting. Many Koreans live in the San Diego area. And it’s near Orange County, so many Koreans will come to watch Kim, I think.”
Though U.S. Census figures do not break down the classification by country, Asians account for 16.7 percent of San Diego’s population — or about one of six residents.
How many might become new baseball fans? New Padres fans? Darvish and Kim will unlock the answers.
“I’m pretty sure I can draw a lot of Korean fans in California,” Kim, a seven-year veteran in KBO, the top level of baseball there, told the Union-Tribune through interpreter Leo Bae. “I’m proud of that.”
Hard-core fans in Korea followed Kim from game to game to land an autograph or photo with the player Baseball America called the top MLB prospect from the KBO entering this season. They shower him with gifts. A bigger baseball stage could amplify that.
“Some fan made me a customized calendar that has photos of me playing baseball, on and off the field,” Kim said. “One made me a T-shirt. I love that stuff. It’s all love from the fans. Those things, like photo albums, are really precious.”
Darvish’s humor, Kim’s idol
Kyodo News journalist Wataru Serizawa moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to cover Darvish in 2017, while he pitched for the Rangers. When a midseason trade shuffled Darvish to the Dodgers, Serizawa hustled to the West Coast.
Serizawa found complex layers to peel, extending far beyond the mound.
“A lot of players, they don’t speak honestly,” Serizawa said. “They talk to the media in a certain way. He speaks whatever he’s actually feeling. He speaks honestly. He’s a thinker. He thinks about pitching more than a lot of people for sure. Maybe more than anyone else.
“When he speaks about pitching, he speaks honestly.”
Darvish quickly flashed his deadpan sense of humor, pretending he did not know who “that player” was when asked about Fernando Tatis Jr. receiving a 14-year, $340 million contract. He later joked about creating a new rule for pitchers “over 33” in the National League that would allow them to hit or give way to a DH.
“Yes, he’s very funny,” Serizawa said of Darvish, a lifetime .101 hitter. “Osaka, that’s a mecca for comedy in Japan. Lots of comedians from Osaka. I’m from Tokyo, but I’ve lived there. You’re expected to be funny. If you’re not funny, you’re not as respected.
“I’m sure he was expected to be funny or naturally was. He has lots of pleasure making people laugh.”
What Kim lacks in major league traction, he makes up for with profound respect for the history of the Padres.
More specifically, his idolization of Hall of Fame hitting machine Tony Gwynn.
“When I went to Petco Park for the contract signing, I took a picture in front of the statue,” Kim said. “There’s a museum that has all the memorabilia for Tony Gwynn, so I took a picture holding his jersey. I took a picture next to his Silver Slugger bats. I’m a huge fan.”
Daisuke Sugiura is the director of operations and player relations (Japan) for Wasserman, which represents players ranging from Darvish to Giancarlo Stanton and Nolan Arenado. He said luring fans locally and globally finds roots in national pride.
“For a country like Japan, where not a lot of athletes come to the United States, you have these guys come perform at the highest level, they’re going to bring a lot of attention,” Sugiura said. “It all dates back to when (pitcher Hideo) Nomo was one of the pioneers, basically, to come to the states. Ichiro, Matsui, Matsuzaka, the list goes on and on.
“And now, Darvish. I think he’s the best Japanese pitcher to ever (throw in America). We might never see a Japanese pitcher like Darvish again.”
Sugiura pointed to the World Baseball Classic, where fans flood parks to cheer on teams from around the globe.
“It’s not just Japan,” he said. “All these Latin American countries come to the states to watch these guys play. It’s great to see countrymen coming together with that pride and joy. These guys playing … against the Americans. Culturally, it’s a big deal.”
Former MLB pitching star Chan Ho Park, a former Padres player who works as an adviser in the club’s baseball operations department, reasoned that unique timing exists for Kim, as well.
“Koreans are excited,” Park said. “(Koreans in Orange County) don’t know the home team to support. The Angels are there, but there are no Korean players. The Dodgers don’t have Korean players. It’s perfect to bring the Korean fans from Orange County.”
Finding Padres footing
One day in spring training, Kim rotated through reps in the batting cage with Wil Myers and Victor Caratini. As manager Jayce Tingler fired pitches, Kim consistently hit line drive after line drive during opposite-field drills.
Waiting for his turn to hit again, Kim sat on a bucket next to one occupied by superstar Manny Machado. Then, World Series winner Eric Hosmer slapped the newcomer on the back of the thigh with his glove, a baseball version of the welcome mat. “That guy” Tatis laughed about a one-liner lost in translation as the group huddled and the language barrier melted a bit more.
Kim soaked up the multimillion-dollar attention.
For someone who dreams of producing the type of footprint as Darvish, a two-time Cy Young runner-up, comfort level matters. Kim needs all the support possible, given his stated goal is to become the NL Rookie of the Year while boldly predicting the Padres will win the World Series.
“My whole baseball career, I set my standard really high, my goals really high,” Kim said. “That motivates me. That puts me in position to perform the best. That’s my style of playing, making my standards really high.”
Are new Padres fans on the way? What do you think?
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