NPR logo The Korean Fan Who Sparked Kansas City's Playoff Run

The Korean Fan Who Sparked Kansas City's Playoff Run

SungWoo Lee is a fan who has become a fan favorite. In August, he even got a chance to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Royals game. Charlie Riedel/AP hide caption

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Charlie Riedel/AP

SungWoo Lee is a fan who has become a fan favorite. In August, he even got a chance to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Royals game.

Charlie Riedel/AP

The Major League Baseball playoffs begin in earnest Thursday night, and this year's postseason offers a story so far out of left field that even the most ardent stats heads find themselves forced to consider the possibility that not only are the baseball gods real, they are also insane. Or perhaps secretly Korean.

If, like most of America, you have not been following the Kansas City Royals closely this season, consider this: In August, SungWoo Lee, a 38-year-old die-hard Royals fan from Seoul, South Korea, of all places, got on a plane headed for Missouri. The team he loved hadn't made it to the playoffs since 1985. By the time Lee boarded his return flight to Korea, the Royals, perennial also-rans, had won nine out of 10 games and recaptured first place in their division. Lee had never set foot in the United States before that week, and the Royals hadn't collectively set foot in first place this late in the season in more than a decade.

If that sounds a little too perfect, maybe it is. But it was so much fun to watch.

Long a fixture on Royals message boards and in the streams of "Royals Twitter," Lee lives and breathes by the team — often defying the time difference to follow games late into the Korean night. This is a team that lost 90 games or more in 10 different seasons between 2000 and 2013, so that's the definition of losing sleep. It's the kind of devotion to a seemingly lost cause that Kansas City fans could relate to, and Lee became a local celebrity almost immediately after he stepped off the jetway.

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Some of us cringed when a popular blogger posted a photo of Lee wearing a blue shirt emblazoned with "Loyal" in the team's signature script. Could this be a cruel (and lame) Asian accent joke? Love it as I do, baseball struggles with race like the rest of America. (Like, really struggles.) Earlier this year, New York Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen called Daisuke Matsuzaka a "Chinaman." And journeyman pitcher Bruce Chen was a member of these same Kansas City Royals when his own teammate made slanty eyes behind him during an on-camera interview in 2012.

But the affection was sincere. Lee made the local TV news, and threw out a ceremonial pitch at Kauffman Stadium. With Lee in the stands, the Royals won easily. The story got picked up by Deadspin. Then they won again. And again. And again. Lee was interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered. They won again. The story made The New York Times.

The only real-life dyed-in-the-wool Kansas City Royals fan I have ever known, much less considered a friend, is my colleague and next-door cubicle neighbor, J.R. Lind. I would guess the number of Royals fans per capita is about the same in Nashville as it is in Seoul, which is probably not far off from the number of adopted Korean kids in the town where I grew up.

"For people who are fans from afar, it's harder to for us to feel like we belong in a lot of ways, but SungWoo blew the doors off all that," J.R. says. "On Tuesday in particular, there were times it felt like everyone in America was behind the Royals — why not? Underdog team who'd missed the playoffs for 29 years — but there was also a sense that at least some significant portion of Korea was with us, too, because of SungWoo."

(Did I mention that J.R.'s dad, born in Iowa and raised in Tennessee, speaks fluent Korean thanks to some time in the Peace Corps? Because of course.)

But back to the reason the Royals are still around to begin a five-game playoff series tonight against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Lee was not in the stadium for Tuesday's win-or-go-home wild-card playoff game, which makes what happened that night even more touching. Here's Rany Jazayerli, who wrote the post on his own blog that became the New York Times story, writing at Grantland:

"In the middle of the ninth, the Royals did something for which I'll always be grateful. In early August, at SungWoo's first game at Kauffman Stadium, they showed him on the enormous Crown Vision scoreboard in the middle of the fifth inning, and the very next batter, [Alex] Gordon, homered to break the scoreless tie and set the Royals on the path to victory. With SungWoo unable to attend Tuesday's game, and with the Royals three outs away from elimination, they did the next best thing: They zeroed the camera in on a pair of young fans who had unfurled a large South Korean flag."

That's almost harder for me to believe than what happened next, and what happened next was pretty amazing. The Royals tied the game in the bottom of the ninth inning and then, after going down a run in the top of the 12th, came back to win on a ball that just barely skidded past the glove of diving Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson. No MLB team had ever come back this far, this late, in a do-or-die playoff game.

Badly in need of a good night's sleep, I had switched off the game with the Royals down 7-3, wondering what I would say to J.R. in the morning, knowing that, against his better judgment, he had already bought a playoff ticket for Game 3 on Sunday and made arrangements in Kansas City. The only reason I checked the score was that my Korean-American friend Tommy Kim — a tenacious Mariners fan who does a mean Dave Niehaus impression but is not known for caring about the Royals at all — had posted a photo of an ecstatic SungWoo Lee to his Facebook wall.

Tommy tells me he loves an underdog, so with the M's out of the picture he probably would have gravitated to the Royals anyway. "But my fandom is amplified by SungWoo," he admits. "My connection to him as a fellow tribe mate makes following the Royals more interesting and entertaining."

So does the fact that it's Kansas City. "I find it very heartening to see middle America (quite literally middle America) really embrace SungWoo as it has," he says. "If this were 20 years ago, I don't think this would have happened, or if it did it would be accompanied by a host of offensive racist caricatures."

Instead, 40,000-plus Royals fans hoped against hope as the image of an unfurled taegeukgi flashed on the Jumbotron. I still can't believe it.

"Friday," J.R. tells me, "I'll drive my dad, the Korean-speaking man who taught me to love baseball, to Kansas City — where neither of us have ever been — to watch a team that got its mojo from a Korean guy — who'd never been to Kansas City either."

If that sounds a little too perfect, maybe it is. But the Royals almost didn't make it this far. When Lee returned to Seoul in August, the team seemed to lose its shine, and wins became suddenly scarce. Royals fans joked nervously that Lee had taken his good luck with him. On some level that seemed true, only now the luck seemed to be aiding South Korea's Little League team, which in the midst of the amazing Mo'ne Davis story was winning in impressive fashion. In the end, they steamrolled their way to the championship.

Can the Royals do the same, or has the "Korean pixie dust," as Jazayerli called it, finally run out? Impossible to know at this point, but utterly gripping to watch.

The last time the Royals won a World Series was 1985.

The last time a South Korean team had won the Little League World Series, prior to this year? You guessed it.