Baseball fans in Toronto’s Korean community say the Blue Jays’ signing of star pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu represents more than just a shot at the post-season – it’s sparked a media storm and increased interest in the team in South Korea.
The Blue Jays announced Friday they’d signed the 32-year-old left-hander to a four-year deal worth US$80 million.
OFFICIAL: We’ve signed LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu to a 4-year contract. Ryu led the Majors with a 2.32 ERA in 2019.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) December 27, 2019
Ryu made his first all-star appearance last year starting for the National League team, but he’s had celebrity status in his home country since high school, according to one member of Toronto’s Korean baseball community.
J.C. Kim, the CEO of the Korean Canadian Baseball Association, said he’s excited about Ryu’s signing with the Jays, but also apprehensive because the team remains relatively young and untested this year.
However, he said Ryu’s signing will resonate in South Korea and beyond either way.
“I think a lot of travellers will come to visit and see him,” said Kim, adding that Korean media had been widely reporting the signing since rumours broke out earlier this month.
“We even got a call from Korean media too – they wanted to know about our community’s reaction here.”
Another member of the association, Anthony Kim, said the Blue Jays will become a better-known name in South Korea as a result of the signing.
Anthony said many Koreans closely followed the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ryu’s previous club. The California city has one of the largest South Korean populations outside of the East Asian country.
However, Anthony believes the focus will now shift to Toronto, which is also home to more than 73,000 people of South Korean descent, according to the 2016 census.
Sporting a white Blue Jays jersey with No. 99 on the back, Ryu was flanked on the media room dais by Boras, president Mark Shapiro, GM Ross Atkins, and translator Tad Yo.
“Hello Canada,” Ryu said with a big smile. “Bonjour.”
The signing was a welcome change for Toronto fans who were growing tired of the team’s inactivity when it comes to landing big-name free-agent talent. The move may not get the Blue Jays back into the mix of playoff contenders, but it signals a shift for a franchise that has seemed stuck in rebuild mode.
“He was going for the Cy Young last year, that tells you everything,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “We’ve got one of the best pitchers in baseball and we’re going to have a chance to win every time he takes the mound.”
The Blue Jays are coming off a 67-95 season but have a solid young core of hitters in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. Atkins was clear through the off-season that adding pitching would be a priority and he’s hopeful Ryu will provide a stabilizing force as a rotation anchor.
“We’re here for one thing and it’s to win,” Atkins said. “We’re getting closer to those days.”
It’s a signing that comes with considerable risk.
Since making his big-league debut with the Dodgers in 2013, Ryu has been on the injured list on 10 different occasions.
He sat out the 2015 season and made only one appearance in 2016 due to left shoulder surgery and elbow tendinitis. He also missed time in 2017 with injuries to his left hip and foot.
“There is no free-agent signing where you’re not sharing some risk,” Atkins said. “We feel like we have added an incredible talent to the organization.”
Ryu re-emerged with a 1.97 ERA over 15 starts in 2018 and accepted a $17.9-million qualifying offer from Los Angeles for 2019. He made 29 starts this year for the NL West champions.
Boras said there were three or four other teams that expressed interest in Ryu, but Toronto was where he wanted to live and play.
“Now this is his team and this is home,” Yo said for Ryu. “He’s going to do his best to make Toronto fans proud and do his best to perform on the field.”
Given Ryu will wear No. 99, one reporter made a point to ask about Wayne Gretzky during the half-hour media availability. A grinning Boras, well-versed in the seismic Gretzky trade between the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings in 1988, took the lead on the reply.
“Canada lent No. 99 to LA,” Boras said. “So with Hyun-Jin, we thought we would return it back to Canada.”