In the 2000s, Major League Baseball captured the attention of Korean and Japanese baseball fans. South Korea was represented by pitchers like Park Chan-ho, Kim Byung-hyun, and Seo Jae-heng, who had traveled to the United States as amateurs and worked their way up to the big leagues. Japan had players like Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Tomokazu Oka. At a time when the Korea-Japan rivalry was heating up in sports, the attention of both countries was focused on the pitchers representing their respective countries whenever they faced each other in the big leagues.
This has cooled off since the 2010s, when the first generation of Korean major leaguers returned to Korea or retired.
While Japan’s subsequent generations have steadily made it to the big leagues, Korea has seen an increase in the number of players who have made it through the ranks, but none of them have had much success outside of Ryu Hyun-jin.
The Korean-Japanese rivalry in Major League Baseball, which has been dormant for some time, is set to heat up again next year. Shohei Ohtani is set to join the Los Angeles Dodgers in a deal that will change the history of global sports contracts, and Lee Jung-hoo is set to become the first Korean to cross the $100 million threshold in the history of the San Francisco Giants. The stage is set for the symbols of modern Korean-Japanese baseball to go head-to-head.
Coincidentally, the LA Dodgers and San Francisco are two of the biggest traditional rivals. Not only are they very close geographically, but they also play in the same National League West division. In 2021, San Francisco finished first in the division, ending the Dodgers’ eight-year run atop the West, but the Giants swept the Division Series in an epic three-game sweep to advance to the Championship Series.
The next two years saw San Francisco falter and the Dodgers dominate, but it was Lee and Oh that the two rival clubs brought in to fill their biggest holes.
The two teams will meet 13 times next year, starting with a three-game series in Los Angeles on April 2-4. It will be a batting matchup only next year, when Oh will only be a hitter, but it will be a two-hitter from 2025, when he will be a pitcher again.
Ryu Hyun-jin, Kim Ha-seong, Choi Ji-man (San Diego), and Bae Ji-hwan (Pittsburgh) are the only Korean major leaguers who have yet to settle on a team in free agency. In effect, Ryu’s days of holding his own are over, with Gold Glove winner Kim Ha-seong joining him this year, and top prospect Lee Jung-hoo joining the mix.
San Diego is also a member of the National League West. The Dodgers will open next year’s official two-game series in Seoul on March 20-21, featuring a Kim-Ha-seong-Otani batting showdown.
The Dodgers are also in the market for Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who has been posted as a free agent, so there’s a good chance we’ll see more Korean-Japanese matchups in the new era.