Dodgers show gambling side by rolling the dice on Hyun-Jin Ryu
It was one of the only moments in Monday’s Dodgers news conference that didn’t require translation.
Shortly after Hyun-Jin Ryu was introduced as the newest Dodgers pitcher, General Manager Ned Colletti fell out of his chair.
Seriously, literally, Colletti’s seat slipped halfway off the stadium club stage, causing a loud clank while requiring the 10,142nd career assist from a nearby Magic Johnson.
“Just sort of fell off the edge there,” Colletti later said with a grin.
Sounds wonderfully like your favorite baseball team these days, doesn’t it? Hurling money into the baseball stratosphere with the same unabashed glee as cheerleaders shooting T-shirts out of tiny cannons, the Dodgers have dropped off the edge of the civilized sports world and into a murky territory where even the New York Yankees pinstripe fearfully curls.
With their two pitching signings this week, the Dodgers’ payroll for next season will exceed $225 million, the highest in baseball history, a number that became even more fun Monday with the introduction of Ryu, a beefy South Korean left-handed starter who is their wildest splurge yet.
The Dodgers are paying $62 million for a pitcher Colletti had never seen in person. The Dodgers are giving a six-year deal to a pitcher who starred in an eight-team Korea Baseball Organization that has never sent a player directly to the major leagues.
Ryu — pronounced Ree-YOO — will go from a 133-game season to the longest summer of his life. Ryu will go from a league where no game can last more than 12 innings to some of the longest nights of his life. And, oh yeah, he will go from a ballpark that seats 14,133 to a land of steel-beamed giants.
The only thing that will remain the same is his number, which is 99, which was recently worn by Manny you-know-who. Naturally, there was a moment Monday where Ryu was being Ryu.
“His first goal is to have two-digit number of wins and an ERA of 2.00 and break Chan Ho Park’s winning record (124),” said his interpreter as the pitcher grinned.
Yeah, the whole afternoon was pretty bold, the Dodgers taking a chance on a guy seen by a handful of scouts whose only real measure of ability against major league batters was gained by watching him in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 World Baseball Classic. Sure, he led the KBO in strikeouts five times in seven years, but who was he striking out? He was 98-52 with a 2.80 ERA over there, but what exactly is over there, and is it really worth millions to find out?
Oh, and one more thing. Ryu has a clause in his contract that forbids the Dodgers from sending him to the minor leagues without his consent. This beautiful thing could get ugly quick.
“Everybody says you don’t know, but you have to invest, you have to take a chance,” Johnson said. “Scouts tell us he’s the real deal, we have to believe that ... we have to go for it.”
In Ryu, the Dodgers are clearly going for it. The bigger news conference this week was supposed to be Tuesday’s introduction of $147-million Zack Greinke, but I showed up Monday because Ryu is far more compelling and symbolic of the new Dodgers efforts.
First, he represents the return of the Dodgers’ long-lost impact in international scouting, joining Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig in a duo of signings this year that have cost them more than $100 million.
“When I talked to [new owners] back in February, they said, ‘What do we need to do as soon as possible?’ … and I said, ‘We can’t wait internationally,’ ” Colletti said. “This is now a global sport, and when you’re restricted to the draft and Puerto Rico and Canada, you are shorting yourself, you can’t compete like that.”
Ryu also represents the Dodgers’ willingness to reach out to a diverse community that had virtually abandoned it. Ryu offers an immediate connection to a Los Angeles that is home to the largest number of Koreans outside the Korean peninsula (the latest census lists 324,586 Korean Americans here, with estimates of around 1 million Koreans living here).
“He is a pitching monster, and everyone is talking about him,” said Kwang Yup Lee, Los Angeles bureau chief for YTN news channel. “He is the best they have over there. The Korean people in Los Angeles have missed Chan Ho Park, and will be very happy to cheer another one of their good guys.”
Finally, Ryu represents the old Dodgers way of rolling the dice and letting it ride. From Fernando Valenzuela to Mike Piazza, some of the greatest Dodgers have come from the oddest places. It’s nice to see them swinging big again.
“We’re not playing around, we’re not messing around,” Johnson said. “We want to improve fan experience, improve the team, we’re not just saying it, we’re doing it.”
In case you were wondering — and I know you were — Ryu has never met that other recent Korean sensation, the rapper Psy. But the KBO’s headquarters are in the district of Seoul that was made famous by Psy’s worldwide hit, meaning it is only slightly a stretch to say that Monday marked the arrival of Dodger Gangnam Style.
Just don’t start dancing quite yet.
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