MATTOON -- Kent and Lori Heller have stayed in touch with Joo Hyun Kim of South Korea ever since they hosted him when he was a youth baseball player in the 2000 Cal Ripken World Series in Mattoon.
The Mattoon residents promised their friend that if he ended up playing professional baseball in South Korea, they would travel there to watch him play. The Hellers fulfilled this promise from Aug. 25 to Sept. 2 when they attended five of Kim J.'s games with Busan-based Lotte Giants.
Kim J. was among the many 12-year-old baseball players from overseas who took part in the 2000 Cal Ripken World Series. The Hellers volunteered to be one of the host families for these youths, and the couple was assigned Kim J. and fellow South Korean player In Tae Hoon.
Despite the language barrier, the Hellers and their three sons developed a good rapport with the South Koreans during their two weeks together. The five children, as well as other South Korean players who visited the couple's home, had fun playing ping pong and video games together.
"The language of video games is apparently universal," Kent Heller said.
Still, Lori Heller said she and her husband were surprised when the reserved Kim J. was heartbroken to leave them at the end of the tournament. She said he hugged them, cried and kept saying, "I come back."
Kim J. diligently wrote to the Hellers and periodically called them, as his English improved, in the months and years to come. He traveled back to Mattoon in 2012 for a 10-day while on leave from his national service with the South Korean military.
"It was awesome to see him again," Lori Heller said. She added that they took him to a Chicago Cubs game and other family activities during his visit.
The Hellers decided the time was right to visit Kim J. after he moved up from minor league baseball this summer in his home country and got a strong start as a left fielder with the Lotte Giants the Korea Baseball Organization.
While in South Korea, the Hellers watched Kim J. play four home games at Sajik Baseball Stadium in Busan and an away game in nearby Ulsan. Lori Heller said it was a happy emotional experience for her to see Kim J., now grown up, fulfilling his dream to be a professional baseball player.
"The first time he got up to bat, my camera was shaking so bad I could hardly take the video," Lori Heller said.
The Hellers said the Lotte Giants have an energetic group of cheerleaders who dance on a platform amid the seating at Sajik stadium. They also said the team's fans are known for being raucously supportive of the Giants.
"They have a different song for every player and a different chant for every player," Kent Heller said. "The crowd is just absolutely electric."
Lori Heller said many of female fans of the Giants, and some of the men, have a tradition of tying small garbage bags into bows and wearing them in their hair starting at the eighth inning. She said they then use the bags to help pick up litter in the seating areas after the game.
Kent Heller said Kim J. is still a rookie in the professional league, so many fans did not recognize him yet off the field while they visited him in Busan. However, he said it was fun seeing avid fans recognize him. Kent Heller said Kim J. would happily sign autographs, especially for children.
Kim J. also presented the Hellers with two Busan Lotte Giants jerseys that he autographed for them.
Busan, with a population of more than 3.5 million that makes it South Korea's second largest city, is situated between the southeast coast and the surrounding mountains.
While the Hellers were in Busan, Kim J. guided them around some of the tourist sites and his favorite restaurants there. They visited a scenic overlook in the mountains, took a boat tour of the coast, and sat on cinder blocks to dine at a small restaurant located in an alley.
Kent Heller said he and his family hope to see Kim J. again in February if he is among the South Korean professional players who are showcased to Major League Baseball during spring training in Arizona. He said they would also like to visit Kim J. again in his home country.
"We would go back in a heartbeat," Kent Heller said. His wife quickly added, "We would love to go back."