April 16, 2024

The baseball fans squeezed onto an early morning bus, bound for a place that some tour companies say is dangerous, some say is somber, and all agree has a surprising amount of gift shops.

They were headed, about 150 of them, for the demilitarized zone: the narrow buffer strip between North and South Korea that is heavily guarded by concertina wire and rifle-toting soldiers.

And they were clad in Dodgers blue.

They were the Dodgers faithful — the team’s most rabid fans, traveling with fan group Pantone 294, named, of course, after the team’s official hue of blue.

They had flown all the way to Seoul to watch the Boys in Blue open their season against the San Diego Padres in the Seoul Series at Gocheok Sky Dome, the first Major League Baseball games staged in South Korea, where baseball is beloved.

Most of the fans did not have tickets to the games. Still they came, knowing they probably would not see any baseball in person — but that they could rep their team in one of the most heavily guarded places in the world. Hopefully without causing any international incidents.

“Unfortunately, we were not able to book any tickets,” said Conrado Guerrero, who travels often with Pantone 294. “But when are you going to get a chance to wear your Dodger gear here in a foreign country?”

“The camaraderie that you get — it’s like a baseball family that you meet out here.”

Members of Pantone 294, a Dodgers fan group, pose for a selfie while touring the Demilitarized Zone in Korea.

Members of Pantone 294, a Dodgers fan group, pose for a selfie while touring the Demilitarized Zone in Korea.

(Mark Potts / Los Angeles Times)

Added fan Eddie De Leon: “We are going to try to go stand in front of the stadium, very old-school style, with signs saying, ‘Hey, we need tickets.’”

Others planned to hang out in local bars to watch the games. To this group, fandom isn’t something in which you participate: it’s a way you live. You have to spend some green to prove you bleed Dodger blue.

Alexander Soto, the founder and owner of Pantone 294, said his group, which organizes trips to Dodgers road games wherever they might be, brought about 400 fans to South Korea, and many more flew separately and met up with the group to go sightseeing.

Pantone 294 started in 2009 when Soto rented a bus and hauled 56 people to a San Francisco Giants game.

“It started off as just friends and family,” he says. “And it turned into what it is now.”

They traveled to see the Dodgers play in Mexico. In Australia. And — gasp! — in true enemy territory: San Francisco.

“Rumor is that the Dodgers are going to open up in Japan in 2025,” Soto said. “Dylan [Hernández] from the L.A. Times reported it. So if it’s true, we will for sure be in Japan in 2025.”

On the tour bus to the DMZ — which left just after 6:30 a.m. on a chilly Tuesday morning — some fans tried to get some extra sleep and others nursed cups of coffee and Red Bull.

The tour guide, Unsuk Jung, who adopted the nickname Oliver because other guides said it would be easier for guests to remember, detailed the schedule for the day. There was a brief mention of beer at lunch, which delighted the Dodgers faithful.

He gave a quick history of the Korean War and told everyone, multiple times, they would be in a heavily militarized zone but, hey, enjoy yourselves.

Outside Imjingak — a former battlefield, where a park was built to comfort refugees whose families were stuck behind the North Korean border — Dodgers fans shopped at souvenir stands selling DMZ shirts, soldier figurines and North Korean “compound alcohol.”

After lunch in the Demilitarized Zone, a Dodgers fan takes a photo of the beer he and a friend drank.

After lunch in the Demilitarized Zone, a Dodgers fan takes a photo of the beer he and a friend drank.

(Mark Potts/Los Angeles Times)

They stood in line for tornado potatoes, sausages, and — don’t tell the Dodger Dogs back home — a meat dish called “magical hot dog” that was a foot-long hot dog spiral-wrapped in bread.

And, of course, there was beer. It was only 8 a.m., but, as the great American scholars Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson sang: It’s five o’clock somewhere. (At that time? It was almost 5 p.m. in Denver.)

Patricia Rodriguez, who joined the tour in a Dodgers 2020 World Series Champions jacket, loves her baseball team — but she had an emotional connection to the trip: Her father, Jose Martin del Campo, fought in the Korean War.

“I wanted to come and see for him,” she said, her voice choking with emotion.

As the group waited for food, a man shouted: “Enemy coming through!”

He was wearing a San Diego Padres jacket.

One surprise on the tour was going down into the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of four known tunnels under the border between the two countries. The surprise wasn’t going into the tunnel: It was how.

Dodgers hats had to be replaced with hard hats. No photos or video were allowed.

After a steep walk down into the darkness, tourists walk through claustrophobia-inducing tunnels, with rock ceilings less than five feet high, the tunnels barely six feet wide. The sounds of people laughing were interrupted by loud thuds of heads hitting rocks or pipes, followed by more laughing — and words unprintable in a family newspaper.

At the end of the 260-meter walk is a large slab of concrete, and a camera watching tourists look through a glass-covered opening at another concrete slab. These are two of three blockades built by South Korea to prevent the north from using it.

Someone offered to start a “Let’s Go Dodgers” chant. It was quickly shut down.

Once everyone returned from the tunnel, and took a few minutes to wipe sweat from their brows, they climbed aboard buses bound for the Dora Observatory, where tourists could see North Korea in person.

Nearly 150 members of Pantone 294 pose for a photo in Paju, Korea.

Nearly 150 members of Pantone 294, a Dodgers fan group, pose for a photo at the end of their day touring the demilitarized zone in Paju, Korea.

(Mark Potts/Los Angeles Times)

The tour guide pointed out landmarks people could view through binoculars. Undeterred by the cold, biting wind, the Dodgers fans excitedly found the North Korean flag through telescopes.

Inside the observatory, a cafe sold hot sandwiches and other snacks, and one member of the fan group lamented the lack of great street tacos in Seoul.

But that complaint was quickly followed by a list of Korean foods with which they’ve fallen in love: the bulgogi beef, the ample seafood options and most things found at the night markets.

The tour ended with everyone gathering for lunch: Bulgogi beef. Beer. Lots of beer.

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