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Shohei Ohtani Arrives in Seoul as MLB's Global Icon

Superstar Shohei Ohtani is set to make his regular-season debut for the Dodgers against the Padres in Seoul as MLB seeks to grow the game in Asia.



Shohei Ohtani
Los Angeles Dodgers newcomers Shohei Ohtani (left) and Yoshinobu Yamamoto pose for a portrait during media day at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona, on February 21, 2024. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SPORTS)

It's Shotime in South Korea. Shohei Ohtani and his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates have arrived in Seoul ahead of a two-game season-opening series against the San Diego Padres on March 20 and 21.

Ohtani is now an international icon who makes the Dodgers one of the most recognizable sports brands on the planet. He's in the same stratosphere as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Jordan.

Ohtani arrived at Seoul's Incheon International Airport on Friday, March 15 to a reception normally reserved for rock stars. Wearing a black training suit and a baseball cap turned backwards, Ohtani was greeted by a huge throng of fans waving signs that read "GOOHTANI," and "Ohtani Fan Club Korea."

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani arrives at Incheon International Airport in Seoul on March 15. (KYODO)

A few steps behind was Ohtani's wife Mamiko Tanaka, an ex-professional basketball player. Before Ohtani departed for Seoul, he shared a photo of himself with Tanaka on social media for the first time.

In late February, Ohtani made the surprise announcement that he had married a Japanese woman but did not disclose her identity.

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani and his wife Mamiko Tanaka are seen in a photo shared on the Los Angeles Dodgers' official X account. (©SANKEI)

Asia: A Growing Hotbed for Baseball

Given all the international fanfare, it only makes sense that Ohtani is making his regular-season debut with the Dodgers on the international stage and in Asia, which, thanks to Ohtani, is rapidly gaining a reputation as a baseball hotbed.

"It's great for our sport, baseball is thriving right now," Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts said of the opportunity for Ohtani and the Dodgers to open the 2024 season in Seoul. "I wasn't around in the '60s and '70s with The Beatles but it's sort of like that with Shohei."

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani fans at Incheon Airport hold signs to welcome the MLB superstar and his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates to Seoul on March 15. (©SANKEI)

Major League Baseball decided on the Seoul series way back in July of 2023, long before it became official that Ohtani would suit up for the Dodgers. Gocheok Sky Dome will host the first MLB regular-season games held in South Korea.

According to Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, this is an important milestone for the South Korean capital.

"The interaction between MLB and the Korean baseball community is now in full swing. By successfully hosting [these games], we hope to make another event of the MLB series in Seoul in the future," Oh was quoted as saying by The Korea Times a week before the opening game.

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani is the marquee star for MLB's Seoul series. (©SANKEI)

Shohei Ohtani Piques Interest in MLB on a Global Scale

Ohtani has generated massive media coverage in recent months. The two-time unanimous American League MVP signed a record-setting 10-year, $700 million USD (more than ¥100 billion JPY) deal with the Dodgers in December. 

MLB is keenly aware of the marketing potential that Ohtani brings to the table.

"Ohtani's impact has been significant," said Chris Marinak, MLB's Chief Operations and Strategy Officer. "His unprecedented performance combined with his already significant fan base in Japan has led to meaningful increases in the market."

Marinak points out that since Ohtani's 2018 MLB rookie season with the Los Angeles Angels, MLB.TV subscriptions in Japan have grown 100% and Ohtani is the most-followed player on MLB digital properties.

Dodgers starting pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto throws in the bullpen during spring training at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona, on February 17. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Japanese and Korean Players on the Dodgers and Padres

Adding to the allure of the two games in Seoul will be the presence of Japanese pitchers Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Dodgers, Yu Darvish and Yuki Matsui of the Padres and standout South Korean shortstop Ha Seong Kim, a Gold Glove winner in 2023 who is entering his fourth season in San Diego. Right-hander reliever Woo Suk Go, 25, is a Padres newcomer this season.


The top pitcher in NPB over the past several years, Yamamoto signed a $325 million (approximately ¥48 billion), 12-year deal with the Dodgers and is the probable starter for Game 2 in Seoul. Darvish is scheduled to take the mound for the Padres in Game 1.

San Diego Padres shortstop Ha Seong Kim makes a leaping throw in the first inning of a Cactus League game against the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Arizona, on February 28. (Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Kim was born in Bucheon, South Korea, and played for seven years in the Korea Baseball Organization, mostly with the Nexen Heroes, who changed their name to the Kiwoom Heroes in 2019.

"I know it's going to be their first Major League Baseball game. So I'm happy for everybody," Kim told MLB.com. "[South Korean fans] are super passionate about baseball. They know how to watch baseball, too."

Kim added, "They are serious about it, they love the sport."

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani bats in a spring training game on March 6 against the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Arizona. (KYODO).

Ohtani's Role This Spring for the Dodgers

Ohtani has batted No 2 in the Dodgers lineup as the designated hitter in spring training games, after Mookie Betts and ahead of Freddie Freeman.

The all-MVP top of the batting order has worked well for Roberts so far so there is no reason to believe anything will change.

As he rehabs from a second major right elbow surgery from September 2023 that will limit the two-way star to hitting this season, Ohtani hit two homers in spring training games, including a two-run blast in his spring training debut for the Dodgers against the Chicago White Sox on February 27.

Before the Dodgers traveled to Seoul, Ohtani was hitting .500 (11-for-22) in eight Cactus League games in Arizona.

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Otani steals a base in the second inning against the White Sox on March 6. (KYODO)

Ohtani, who is targeting a return as a pitcher in 2025, belted an American League-best 44 homers last season for the Los Angeles Angels, fourth overall in the major leagues. 

And it's even possible Ohtani will contribute to improved relations between South Korea and Japan.

Leading up to the series, there have been reports in the media that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may attend one of the games with South Korean leader Yoon Suk-yeol on the sidelines of a planned summit.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who was born in Okinawa, is entering his ninth season at the helm. (©SANKEI)

Dodgers Expected to Win the NL West

With all their off-season signings, the Dodgers are the favorites in the two Seoul games and the National League West. Their fans are hoping the additions lead to more postseason success.

Despite dominating in the regular season, the Dodgers have lost in the NL Division Series for the past two seasons. Those were to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2023 and the Padres in 2022.

Padres starter Yu Darvish throws during a workout in Peoria, Arizona, on February 13. (Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Padres Vying for a Return to the Playoffs

The Padres, meanwhile, are hoping to get back to the postseason for the first time since '22 where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games to 1 in the National League Championship Series.

Padres manager Mike Shildt says he is looking forward to the unique opportunity of opening the season on the other side of the world.

"I'm excited about it," Shildt said, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. "I want to grow the game globally. And yeah, it's gonna be a challenge. It's gonna be a lot of things going on … it's a unique schedule but we are up to the task."

Ichiro Suzuki
Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki bats in his final MLB game against the Oakland Athletics on March 21, 2019, at Tokyo Dome. (ⒸSANKEI)

A Brief History of MLB's Overseas Opening Series

The Seoul games mark the 15th time MLB has played official games abroad and the ninth time they have played Opening Day overseas.

Marinak points out that in 2023, there was pronounced fan growth in overseas markets where live games were staged and it's a good bet to assume the same will happen in South Korea.

The first Opening Day series outside the US or Canada was in 1999 when the Colorado Rockies played the Padres in Monterrey, Mexico.

MLB has played games in Japan on five occasions: 2000 with the Mets and Cubs, 2004 with the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 2008 with the Boston Red Sox versus the Oakland Athletics, 2012 with Oakland against the Seattle Mariners, and, most recently, in 2019 when the Mariners and the Athletics played at Tokyo Dome as Ichiro Suzuki played his last major league game.

The two-game set will be held at the home stadium of the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization.

One drawback is the stadium's capacity. It can accommodate only 16,700 spectators, compared to 55,000 for Tokyo Dome. Not surprisingly, games sold out almost immediately and many fans in Japan missed out.

But MLB is pleased with the venue.

"Gocheok Sky Dome will be a great venue to host the games," Marinak said. "We are confident it will be a great experience for our fans and an important showcase for the global popularity of baseball."



Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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