This is a hard story to summarize because there are so many elements to it and the way it has grown and grown — and continues to grow — is pretty unique.
The gist is this: A man living in Seoul, South Korea declares himself a Royals fan 20 years ago because he likes underdogs and thinks Kauffman Stadium looks beautiful and wants to use Major League Baseball broadcasts to improve his English skills.
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 – whosespot as Everyone’s Favorite Royals Fan he usurped. Sung Woo won, of course. (Sorry, Jimmy.)
– Was featured at MLB.com.
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.)