Jackson County has extended the royal treatment being bestowed upon Kansas City Royals super fan SungWoo Lee. At Monday's County Legislative meeting in Independence, Legislative Chairman Scott Burnett presented Lee a proclamation honoring the South Korean's unlikely devotion to the Royals.
From afar -- Seoul, South Korean is about 6,500 miles from Kansas City -- Lee has been, for two decades and counting, the most unlikely of passionate Royals fans.
As a middle school student in the 1990s, he began tuning into the American Forces Korean Network to develop his English skills. The sports broadcasts were easier to follow than other programs.
While learning the language viewing baseball games on TV, he gravitated toward the Kansas City Royals. Why?
Where the Royals call home, Jackson County's own Kauffman Stadium, played a major role. "The beautiful stadium -- 'The K' -- caught my eye," Lee said.
Following the team has become what he calls "my exit from work, my joy for my life." A trip to watch his beloved Royals in person at Kauffman Stadium has topped Lee's bucket list for years now. He is finally fulfilling that dream during the team's current homestand.In the process he's gone from a social media sensation to generating national headlines in both the United States and Korea: "My friends keep seeing my picture and asking, 'Is that you? Is that you?'"
'Not Cursed Like Chicago Cubs'
While he describes the Royals as perennial underdogs, Lee did some research. He discovered the Royals have a storied past. The heated playoff rivalry with the New York Yankees in 1970s, the star-filled line-up featuring Hall-of-Famer George Brett, the I-70 World Series triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985... All that history captivated him.
"Once I started paying attention to the Royals, I saw that they were in the 1970s and '80s victorious," Lee explained. "I saw that they weren't always a losing team like an expansion team. They were not cursed like Chicago Cubs."
A Special Gift From A Former Royals All-Time Great
Lee got to connect directly with those victorious Royals teams he had only been able to read about. Former KC second baseman Frank White followed up the proclamation Burnett presented with gifts that included an autographed No. 20 Royals jersey that Lee promptly put on. White's No. 20 is one of three numbers the Royals have retired.
Like any Royals fan, Lee longs for a return to the glory days, when KC was associated with Major League Baseball's elite franchises. (The Royals haven't been back to the playoffs since that 1985 championship season, and they have finished just five seasons with a winning record since 1990.)Lee now follows every Royals game religiously, live via MLB.tv and Twitter. Given the 14-hour time difference between South Korea and the central United States, that means a sleepless night for the 38-year-old in Seoul whenever the Royals play an afternoon game.
"A lot of us Royal fans think of ourselves as being diehards," County Executive Mike Sanders said. "Considering he's following the team in Korea, tuning into games in the middle of the night, I think you have to consider SungWoo Lee a try-harder fan. He has to put a lot of effort into following the Royals.
"He obviously loves our team."
His First Love
Lee pointed out that his younger bother SungJin, shares his undying love for the Royals. As for Lee's wife, YouYoung Park, her being asleep during most games makes his Royals fanaticism "less infuriating."
"She has got use to it," Lee said. "We met 10 years ago, so the Royals are my first love. I tell her, 'Sorry about that,' whenever I have to watch baseball game."
Receiving a red-carpet welcome at KCI Airport, Lee arrived in Kansas City Tuesday, August 5. Hopeful that he'll be celebrating another Royals' triumph after this Wednesday night's game against the Oakland A's, he'll begin the long journey home to Seoul -- a 17-hour trip -- with a pre-dawn flight Thursday, August 14.
A group of KC fans -- they call themselves Lee's welcome committee -- have assured the trip has exceeded Lee's expectations. (His dream-of-a-lifetime summer vacation has captivated thousands of followers on Twitter at @Koreanfan_KC.)
He has received private tours of Kauffman and Arrowhead Stadiums, as well as the clubhouse of the Royals' Class AA affiliate, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Fans dedicated a tailgating party to Lee prior to his first game at The K, a 5-0 win over the San Francisco Giants on Saturday, August 9. Going into Monday's game against the A's, prior to which Lee was to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, the Royals were 6-0 since their Korean Super Fan landed at KCI. Their overall record stood at 63-53, only a half-game behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central.
UPDATE (Friday, August 15): The Royals lost their game to the Oakland A's 11-3 on Tuesday, August 12, but bounced back to beat the A's 3-0 Wednesday in the last game SungWoo Lee would see during his trip to Kansas City. After their 7-3 triumph over the A's on Thursday, August 14, the Royals were in first place in the Central Division, a half-game ahead of Detroit.
"Seeing that they had won in the '70s and '80s, I thought the Royals can be a winning team again," Lee declared. "I've always wanted to be a part of that. I want to be a witness to them being a winning team again."
Then he added, sounding very much like any old Royals fan, "I did not think it would take 20 years, though."
When some fans on Twitter began suggesting Lee was the Royals "lucky charm" and he ought to stay the rest of the season, he humbly replied, "Only players can save this exciting season from the field... not me."
County Executive Sanders joked, "Given how well the Royals have played with Lee in town, I also hate to see him go."
Then he added, "I hope all Royal fans -- those near and those far away -- will have something to be cheering about in October when the regular season ends and the playoffs begin.
"We know SungWoo will be watching."