CINCINNATI - Baseball is considered the American pastime, but the passion South Koreans have for the game is rivaled by no other country.
That's why Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is a considered a national hero in his native country.
South Korea's love affair with the outfielder began in 2000 when he was a standout pitcher who led the country to the World Junior Baseball Championship . He was named Most Valuable Player of that tournament.
The native of Pusan, South Korea also led the national team to a silver medal in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and a gold medal in the highly competitive Asian Games in 2010.
Despite a 13-hour time difference, every Reds game is broadcast in South Korea so Choo's countrymen can watch him play on a daily basis.
For those who aren't able to catch the games due to the local 8 a.m. start times, they're able to watch highlights of the eight-year MLB veteran every night via Korean newscasts.
While it is strong overseas, the fervor of support the 31-year-old outfielder has not been lost on Korean-Americans.
The Korean-American community has rallied behind all 13 South Koreans who've played in the MLB, but Choo has arguably been the nation's most beloved athlete since he signed a $1.35 million contract and debuted with the Seattle Mariners in 2005.
He then spent the next several seasons with the Cleveland Indians, giving regional Korean-American groups like the Cincinnati Korean-American Association (CKAA) a chance to see their national hero play.
Members of the CKAA were presented with a unique opportunity prior to the 2013 MLB season when Choo was traded to the Reds from the Indians. The organization decided it wanted to reach out to Choo to let him know they supported him and his transition to life in the Queen City.
CKAA leadership contacted Choo's agent, his wife and the Reds in order to put together an event that would both allow the organization to show their collective support for the Korean national team member and give Choo a chance to reach out to local Korean-Americans.
The group has sponsored or participated in variety of local events in the past, including golf outings, the annual Asian Food and Culture Festival at The Banks and various fundraising and cultural awareness efforts throughout the Greater Cincinnati area.
But group leadership wanted to find a way to combine Choo's profession with South Korean's love of baseball.
Spokesperson Charles Kim said baseball provided a unique chance for Korean-Americans in the region to come together and bond over something that is highly valued in their culture. Watching Choo play is an opportunity for them to combine their love of sport with their love of country.
"People in Korea love sports, particularly baseball," Kim said. "(Choo) is like a god to Koreans. Getting the chance to watch him play is just really exciting for a lot of us," he said.
On Saturday, the CKAA hosted an afternoon-long series of events prior to and during the Reds' game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park.
The organization sold 300 tickets to Korean-Americans across the Midwest who wanted to see Choo perform in person.
Kim said at least half of the fans traveled from Dayton, Columbus, Louisville and Lexington to watch the game. Groups from Chicago and New York also made the trip to Cincinnati for the game.
Members gathered outside GABP before the game for its first-ever formal meet-and-greet with Choo. They also had a chance to speak with him during on-field warm-ups.
During the game, participating members of the group sat in a reserved section near center field to get a close-up view of Choo in action.
They showed support for their favorite player during the game by waving rally towels, holding banners and shouting out Korean baseball chants, giving Cincinnati baseball fans a taste of baseball in Asia.
Officials from the Reds organization partnered with the CKAA to come up with a special Korean Shin-Soo Choo T-shirt that all 300 members wore on Saturday.
The shirt has "Cincinnati Reds" in Korean and team's logo printed on the front of the shirt, and shows off Choo's name and his No. 17 on the back.
Extra support from the fans may have contributed to Choo extending his hitting streak to a career-high 14 games. He was 2-for-4 with a double, and scored the opening run during the Reds' four-run first inning.
In addition to having fun in the sun with a superstar baseball player, members of the CKAA were able to follow through with their mission to "bring the fellow Koreans together and improve the quality of life for them."
Kim said the event was a chance for his organization to become more visible in the local community and let people know Korean-Americans are a vibrant part of life in Cincinnati.
The CKAA set up a tent on the lawn at Great American Ball Park and used the opportunity to share insights about Korean culture and bond with locals over their shared love of baseball.
"We're excited to highlight the Korean-American community to Cincinnati,"
Kim said before the game.
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