Sunday, August 10, 2014

To Sung Woo, Thanks For Everything! Rany Jazayerli

How do I begin this story? How do I explain the inexplicable? How can I convince you that the greatest story for Royals fans in 29 years is unfolding before our eyes, and its protagonist lives a hemisphere away, speaks imperfect (but diligent) English, and had never set foot at Kauffman Stadium until this past Thursday?

I first became aware of Sung Woo Lee maybe eight or nine years ago. I didn’t know his name was Sung Woo Lee, I just knew there was a poster at a site named Royals Corner that I occasionally dropped in on – back when there was more time in my day and fewer options for the sports-minded reader – who went by the handle “KoreanFan”. He wrote like English was his second language, but he got his point across, and he was eternally optimistic at a time when hundred-loss seasons were something the Royals could only aspire to. I thought it was impressive that someone from Korea followed the Royals, but didn’t think too much more of it.

Years later KoreanFan joined Twitter as @Koreanfan_KC, affording him the opportunity to interact with other Royals fans more easily. And slowly, through osmosis, I picked up his general story: that Sung Woo Lee was from South Korea, had somehow become a Royals fan in the 1990s, and loyally stuck with the team even though he had no connection to the team or city whatsoever – I don’t think he had ever been to America. I’d answer a couple of his questions on Twitter at times and he appeared genuinely thrilled that I responded. He seemed earnest, polite, and perpetually optimistic about the team despite the many slings and arrows they threw at him. He was basically everything I’m not, in other words.

Over time he became a well-known and welcome part of the Royals social media community. His devotion to the team, despite the vast geographic and cultural and even chronological gap – he would frequently tweet during Royals games on the weekend even though it was the middle of the night in Korea – earned him respect, as did the fact that he never criticized the team, but also never criticized the critics. In one memorable exchange two years ago, Danny Duffy – who was as honest and open and heartfelt on Twitter as any athlete, which is probably why he had to finally quit it – offered to fly Sung Woo to Kansas City to see the team play.

Chris Kamler, who the world knows as @TheFakeNed, interviewed Sung Woo for his website in 2012, and you get the full sense of his personality and devotion there. Kamler ended the interview by once again needling Sung Woo about when he was going to finally fly to Kansas City to see the Royals play.

This summer, Sung Woo finally decided to take the plunge. Taking advantage of a job change, he was able to carve out ten days from his schedule to come to Kansas City, watch the Royals play, and maybe do a little sight-seeing and barbecue-eating while he was in town. He emailed Kamler and fellow Royals fan Dave Darby that he was buying his plane ticket and reserving his hotel room; they told him not to worry about transportation, that they’d pick him up and drive him to the ballpark and introduce him to Arthur Bryant’s and maybe the Negro League Museum while he was in town.

If the story had ended there, that would have been enough: three people who have never met, and can barely communicate with each other, bonding together like long-lost friends over a shared mutual interest in a crappy baseball team. A couple of guys were going to take a day or two off of work to show a complete stranger around town. Movies have been made with flimsier plots.

But then Kamler decided to have a little fun, and use his influence – and I use the term “influence” loosely for a guy who impersonates Ned Yost on Twitter and spends most of his time there making fart jokes – to publicize the fact that Sung Woo Lee was finally coming to Kansas City, and it would be great if other Royals fans would welcome him and make him feel at home.

He had no idea what he was getting himself into. None of us did. I tweeted Kamler on August 1st that since I wasn’t in town to see Sung Woo myself, I’d be happy to drop him a line and talk to him on the phone for a few minutes. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here – talking about the Royals with someone isn’t exactly a sacrifice for me. I’m just pointing out that nine days ago, the story of Sung Woo Lee was still something that only the Royals Twitterati knew about, and the only ambition any of us had at the time was simply for Sung Woo to have a good time while he was in town.

And then things got a little crazy. Kamler started pushing the hashtag #SungWooToKC on Twitter to get the word out. Kamler can run a hashtag into the ground – if something like, say, #CareerEndingTwitterTypos was trending, he’ll tweet out 37 career-ending Twitter typos in quick succession. Kamler is a social media pro, and has enough big names in the KC media world following him to get the word out a fair bit. But still: how many people, aside from us hard-core Royals fan types who even use Twitter in the first place, were going to care about some guy from South Korea who was flying to Kansas City to watch a few baseball games?

This is the point where we have to tip our cap to the Royals themselves. Shortly after Kamler launched #SungWooToKC, the Royals reached out to Lee directly and offered him to throw out the first pitch at Monday’s game. Coming from an organization that has made missteps with the way it communicates to its fan base at times, this was an incredibly gracious and classy move. When trying to piece together how this story went viral, it’s – almost by definition – impossible to tell what the tipping point was that made Sung Woo Lee a phenomenon. But being offered to throw out the first pitch had to have made a difference. As a media story, “hey, there’s this Royals fan coming all the way from Korea to watch his first game at Kauffman Stadium” is nice, but “hey, there’s this Royals fan coming all the way from Korea to watch his first game at Kauffman Stadium, and the Royals are letting him throw out the first pitch on Monday!” has a much bigger hook.

The media, the fans, the entire damn city took the hook. Kamler wrote about Sung Woo’s approaching trip, including his itinerary while he was in town, for Pine Tar Press last weekend. At that point, I just hoped that his trip might warrant a brief mention in the Kansas City Star or something. By the time he landed in Kansas City Tuesday afternoon, he had four local TV crews waiting at the gate for his arrival. The city has laid out the red carpet for him ever since, and the story just continues to grow.

For posterity’s sake, I’m going to do my best to summarize what has happened since, though to save time I won’t be able to link to everything. To get the full flavor, check out Sung Woo’s Twitter feed, or Kamler’s.

- Greeted by camera crews Tuesday afternoon, was on four local TV broadcasts that night.

- Was featured in the Star Wednesday morning.

- Took a tour of the Negro League Museum later that morning, featuring tour guide Bob Kendrick and an entourage of two dozen people.

- Gets featured at Deadspin and USA Today.

- Has lunch at Arthur Bryant’s.

- Is interviewed on 610 Sports that afternoon.

- Trolls the Best Fans In Baseball.

- Tours Boulevard Brewing Company that evening.

- With the Royals still playing in Arizona, he gets a shoutout from Danny Duffy – who, behind the scenes, also had a lot to do with Sung Woo’s story becoming as big as it has – on the Royals pre-game show.

- Got an email from Mike Sweeney.

- This is all still Wednesday, by the way.

- Appeared on 96.5 The Buzz Thursday morning. Was given a helmet signed by Billy Butler and a hat signed by Bruce Chen from the station.

- Is featured in the English-language Korea Times.

- Received a personal tour of Kauffman Stadium from the Royals, led by Jennifer Splittorff, who presented him with a SPLITT patch and one of her dad’s bobbleheads afterwards. Goes out on the field, touches the grass, picks up a bullpen phone, basically does everything short of hitting a double in the gap.

- Gets a personalized “SungWoo Lee” #23 Royals jersey, presented by Curt Nelson, the Director of the Royals’ Hall of Fame.

- Walks across the Truman Sports Complex to tailgate before the Chiefs’ preseason opener.

- Is presented with his own personalized #1 jersey by the Chiefs, gets tickets near the 50-yard line. Meets former players and current team president Mark Donovan.

- Friday was a pre-scheduled trip to see the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, so much of it was spent in the car. However, once there he managed to:

- Watch batting practice from next to the cage;

- Get invited into the clubhouse by manager Vance Wilson, who had heard about his story;

- Shake hands with every player one by one, and give Mitch Maier – back mentoring the baby Royals – a bear hug.

- Rode the Naturals’ pickup onto the field with their mascots.

- Got on the field as a human bowling ball during a mid-inning promotion. He managed to knock over six pins.

- Got Maier’s autographed jersey after the game.

Saturday, he was back in Kansas City for his first chance to watch the Royals play live.

- Prior to the game he was the star of a massive tailgate party in the parking lot, where he met his adoring masses.

- Appeared on the Jumbotron in the middle of the fifth inning.

- Was a story on Sportscenter – SPORTSCENTER – after the game Saturday night.

- Appeared in studio with Joel Goldberg and Jeff Montgomery on today’s pre-game show. Montgomery gave him an autographed glove as a gift.

- Took part in the dance-off competition against Jimmy Faseler – whose spot as Everyone’s Favorite Royals Fan he usurped. Sung Woo won, of course. (Sorry, Jimmy.)

- Was featured at

Somewhere along the way he appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. He’s gotten tweets sent to him from Jeremy Guthrie, Eric Hosmer, and Billy Butler (at least – there may be more.)

I managed to speak with him by phone on Saturday before he headed to the ballpark; I’m pretty sure I was more nervous than he was. He told me that he and his brother, Sung Jin Lee, who is also a Royals fan but not as involved on social media, would read Rob & Rany on the Royals back in the day and argue about the Royals afterwards. “I was optimist like you,” he told me. “My brother was like Rob, not pessimist, but…” he struggled to find the right word. “…realist.”

(A decade of Rob & Rany on the Royals, summed up by Sung Woo Lee in one depressing sentence.)

As an aside, do you know hard it was to be a Royals fan in South Korea in 1995? This was years before an MLB Extra Innings package existed, let alone and watching games over the internet. Sung Woo was able to watch the Royals play only rarely – he told me he saw most of their highlights from the satellite TV equivalent of CNN Headline News, a snippet here, a ten-second clip there. I lived overseas from 1984 to 1991 and it was almost impossible to keep up with the Royals – but at least I was already a Royals fan, and we came home to Wichita every summer from early June to mid-August. The level of devotion it took for him to become a Royals fan warrants every good thing that’s happened to him this week.

After we spoke, he had to take another phone call – from Jason Kander, the Missouri Secretary of State.

Tonight he attended a Sporting KC watch party at the Power & Light District – Sporting KC dropped by the tailgate yesterday to present him with one of their jerseys – and he’s a guest of the Hilton President hotel tonight. He’s supposed to be on 810 WHB in the morning. I believe he’s appearing on the Korean version of “Good Morning America” on Monday. And, of course, he’s throwing out the first pitch at Kauffman Stadium tomorrow night. Whereupon I expect he’ll get the loudest ovation heard at Kauffman Stadium since George Brett retired.

So, you know, just like your summer vacation.

At this point, I'm not willing to put any limit on just how big a story this can be, since I'm not entirely sure how this became such a big story to begin with. A feature on one of the national nightly newscasts? Why not? This seems like the exact kind of story that Diane Sawyer or Brian Williams would want to end their show with. A shoutout from President Obama? Well, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest is a huge Royals fan - I mean, it's in his Twitter handle. So who knows?

And really, if this story was just about how Kansas City opened its homes and its heart to a Royals fan from South Korea, that would be enough. It would be enough to feel for once an immense swell of pride at being a Royals fan, of being part of this community of people who paid back the devotion of a foreigner with the best of Midwestern hospitality. It would be a story we’d be talking about for years to come.

But of course, that’s only half of the story. Because the other half of the story is that ever since he arrived the Royals can’t stop winning. They were already on a hot stretch before he arrived, winning 9 of their last 12 games and handing the A’s their first home series loss in three months. But ever since Sung Woo Lee arrived at KCI Tuesday afternoon, the Royals have taken this to another level. They crushed the Diamondbacks that night, 12-2, hitting three homers with at least two men on base for only the fifth time in franchise history. The fifth inning that night was the first time the Royals had ever hit a three-run homer and a grand slam in the same inning.

Wednesday they edged Arizona, 4-3, with Mike Moustakas driving in all four runs; the next night they finished off the sweep, 6-2, as Jeremy Guthrie threw the Royals’ first complete game of the year. Friday the Royals returned home to play the Giants, and San Francisco should have scored five runs in the third inning – they had a stretch of six hits in seven at-bats – but Nori Aoki threw out a runner at third base (when Hunter Pence briefly overran the bag) and at home plate to end the inning, becoming the first Royal outfielder in over 40 years with two assists in one inning, and the Giants settled for only two runs. Butler and Gordon hit RBI singles in the sixth inning and the Royals won, 4-2.

And then yesterday, Sung Woo’s first game ever at Kauffman Stadium, the game was scoreless in the middle of the fifth inning. That’s when the Royals put his picture up on the jumbotron. The very next batter – Alex Gordon, leading off the bottom of the fifth – homered. The Royals would win, 5-0, as James Shields threw the Royals’ first shutout of the year. Prior to the game, Sung Woo had tweeted this out. His English was ambiguous – did “Go Royals… make it 5-0 today” mean he was rooting for them to win their fifth straight since he arrived? Or win today, by the score of 5-0? Decades from now, scholars will parse his tweet the way amateur historians watch footage of Babe Ruth’s called shot, trying to determine his intent.

The Royals won today, 7-4, with Sung Woo’s patron Duffy getting his second win since Lee arrived, after Duffy hadn’t won a game since June. Afterwards, Sung Woo waved a broom for everyone to see.

Today’s win was the Royals’ 15th in their last 18 games, meaning that – after not winning 15 of 20 games in more than 10 years when Dayton Moore made his infamous comment last year at the All-Star Break – they have now had three stretches of 15 wins in 20 games in the last 13 months. Today’s win was also the Royals’ seventh in a row, giving the Royals their second seven-game winning streak of the year, something they hadn’t accomplished since – wait for it – 1985.

And while the Royals have been winning, pretty much every team they’re trying to catch has been losing. When Sung Woo landed on Tuesday, the Royals had the seventh-best record in the AL, 1.5 games behind the Blue Jays for the second wild card. As I write this, they are in the catbird seat for the second wild card, at least 1.5 games ahead of every team chasing them. Their daily playoff odds, as calculated by sites like and Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs, have more than doubled in the last week. Their current playoff odds at sit at 59.2%, which is the highest number their daily playoff odds have been since daily playoff odds were invented.

And while those playoff odds include the possibility of a one-game winner-take-all playoff set against the Angels on the road just for the right to play in the ALDS, the Royals’ chances of avoiding the Coin Flip Game by winning the AL Central have risen even faster than their overall playoff odds. On the morning of July 31st – ten days ago – the Royals were five games behind the Detroit Tigers. That morning the Tigers traded Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson for David Price, while the Royals did nothing.

Ten days later, the Royals are a half-game behind Detroit. The Tigers lost three of four to the Yankees, and then after coming back to beat Toronto in the ninth inning Friday night, lost Saturday when Joe Nathan blew a one-run lead in the ninth and Joba Chamberlain gave up the walk-off hit in the tenth. Today they had a 5-0 lead through five innings with David Price on the mound; their lead was down to 5-4 in the ninth, and this time Chamberlain gave up the tying run. Had the Blue Jays finished off the rally there it would have been grand enough, but instead the Tigers and Blue Jays played ten more innings, exhausting both bullpens in the process, with the Tigers turning to starter Rick Porcello in the 17th inning – and the Blue Jays walked off in the 19th inning. The Tigers’ bullpen is gassed, they lost the series, and they lost both Joakim Soria (to an oblique injury) and Anibal Sanchez (a strained pectoral muscle) until September. Oh, and they don’t have a day off until a week from tomorrow.

Meanwhile, though the Royals host the Oakland A’s for the next four days, after that their schedule turns cupcake-easy, as teams that looked like contenders before the season – Texas and Boston – have packed it in instead. The Royals play one of their subsequent 19 games (a make-up against the Yankees) against a team with a winning record. In fact, after Thursday the Royals have just ten games out of 42 left against winning teams – four against the Yankees, and six head-to-head against Detroit.

Maybe that’s why, at the moment, estimates the Royals’ playoff chances (59.2%) as higher than Detroit’s playoff chances (55.9%).

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that one of the Royals’ greatest weeks on the field in a generation just happened to coincide with one of the Royals’ greatest stories off the field in a generation. Probably it’s a coincidence. A rational approach to what’s happened would tell you that of course it’s a coincidence.

But I’m just about ready to take leave of reason when it comes to these Royals. You see, Sung Woo Lee has done something even more improbable than spreading Korean pixie dust all over the organization, turning them from pretenders to contenders in less than a week: he’s made me want to believe again. Let’s be honest: after being bruised and battered for two decades, I was finally shattered by the Myers trade, and I’ve had a hard time picking up the pieces. I still wasn’t fully healed. Even a week ago, when the Royals were starting to pick up steam again, I was just waiting for them to start losing once again so I could mock them.

Well, I’m done waiting for them to lose. I’m done with being cynical, at least for now, at least until I close up this blog after the season. For most of the past two decades, ever since I started writing about baseball, writing about the Royals has always been a battle between my heart and my brain. And rooting for the Royals has always been a battle between wanting them to win and wanting to be right. As you know, I and my analytical brethren see the game a certain way, a way that has been embraced by much of baseball, but a way that the Royals have been painfully slow to adopt. For 20 years, I’ve had to choose between victory and vindication.

All that seems kind of silly right now. Baseball isn’t a morality play. It’s not a war between the old school and the new school. Maybe it once was, but the war is over, and as part of the peace terms, the new school won acceptance, and the old school held on to its relevance. Billy Beane is taking the A’s to their seventh postseason in 15 years. Bill James has three world championship rings. Friends and former colleagues of mine work in the front offices of a dozen different organizations, including the Royals – and if I had been willing to give up my dermatology practice last year, I might have joined one myself.

So sure, if the Royals make the playoffs I’ll be proven completely wrong about The Trade, and look like an imbecile. I will owe some people an apology. It won’t be the first time. It won’t undo a generation of sabermetric advances in the game. It won’t render my entire career a sham. But it will be the first time in my adult life that I’ll get to see my team in the playoffs. That seems like a reasonable trade.

So I’m all in now. Besides, the trading deadline has passed, so the time for moves and decisions is over. Now’s simply the time to play the games and see what happens. To quote Julius Caesar, “the die is cast”. To quote Jake Taylor, “Well then, I guess there’s only one thing left to do…win the whole f****** thing.” I’m going to do my best to turn my analytical brain off for the next two months, and just enjoy the ride.

Either way, this week will have been one of the most special weeks in my lifetime as a Royals fan. Because you see, Sung Woo didn’t fly all the way here from South Korea to see the Royals win. He came here to be a part of Royals Nation. He came here to be part of a community. He came here to meet us. And an astounding number of people have returned the favor.

In the end, this really isn’t a sports story, or at least it’s not a story about sports themselves. It’s a story about what sports does to us. It’s a story about how sports can bring us to a higher place, about why we cling to fandom no matter how bad our team is playing or how far away they are. The reason we’ve all stayed Royals fans through a generation of sadness and failure is because the joy we took from being Royals fans wasn’t derived solely from their success on the field. It was from the joy of being part of something bigger than ourselves. It was from the joy that comes from connecting with others. Being linked together by sadness and failure is far better than not being linked at all.

It’s funny. For twenty years I’ve been trying to make the Royals play better by writing about them analytically, by bringing a scientific approach to baseball and using it to show what the Royals are doing wrong and how they could do things better. And for twenty years maybe I’ve been doing it wrong. Maybe science and intellect doesn’t work here. Maybe it works in Boston and Oakland and Tampa Bay, but not in Kansas City. Maybe what works here isn’t reason, but emotion. Maybe what the Royals needed wasn’t someone to explain to them that OBP matters, but someone who loved them so much that he’d fly 6,000 miles to see them play. Maybe what they’ve been missing isn’t talent, but a talisman.

Sung Woo Lee is that talisman. Chris Kamler and Dave Darby – and Kevin Robinson, Ethan Bryan, Jeff Huerter, and please forgive me if there’s anyone else I missed – brought him to Kansas City, and he’s brought us all together. He throws out the first pitch tomorrow night, before a series against the Oakland A’s, who are the antithesis of the Royals in pretty much every way, from offensive philosophy to focus on player development to, well, level of success. Maybe tomorrow night reason will win, as it usually does, and the Royals’ dream bubble will be pricked by the best team in baseball. Maybe emotion and narrative will hold off for another night. Either way, I’ll be rooting for the Royals to win. Sung Woo’s been rooting for us for 20 years and we didn’t even know who he was. Now it’s time for us to root for him.