Now, finally it seems, the streets here in Korea are lined with the delicate feathery pinkness of cherry blossoms in bloom and the sun’s light once more pervades the heartbreakingly blue, nearly cloudless sky. An overlong winter has yielded once more to spring. For me, and millions, that means much more than pleasant thoughts and light jackets. It means baseball.
Obviously my baseball options are a bit different here, but fortunately I’m in one of the few countries that values the sport as much as American does. Introduced by American missionaries nearly a century ago, it vies with soccer for the title of most popular sport. The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) is its professional league, fielding 8 teams that play a shorter 133 game schedule. Each team has and is named after a corporate sponsor, the most recognizable of which are the Samsung Lions and LG Twins. The level of competition is somewhere between AA and AAA minor league ball, which is exactly where it draws the majority of its foreign-born players, of which two are allowed per team. If your baseball knowledge is as epically and uselessly arcane as mine, you may recall former Major League names like Julio Franco, Karim Garcia, and Carlos Baerga, who all played in the KBO at one time. Current players include Ryan Sadowsky, Dustin Nippert, and Horacio Ramirez.
The Majors have also seen its share of Korean-born players, from current Cleveland Indians star Shin-Soo Choo to past stand-outs Chan Ho Park and Byung-Hyun Kim. They’re all national celebrities here, in particular Choo and Park, and the latter two made headlines over the winter with their returns to Korean baseball. They also were all amateur signings, and no player has ever made the jump directly from the KBO to the Major Leagues. There’s clearly some major league caliber talent here, though, as I’ve seen a few 96 mph fastballs (155 kph, which is the measurement they use here) and the video game numbers that some of the portly power hitters (a Korean specialty) put up have to have some sort of underlying skills behind them.
Another oddity: plenty of submariners
The girlfriend is a pretty big Lotte Giants fan, which is the hometown team of the nearest metropolis, Busan. Despite their status as the Cubs of the KBO, not having won it all since, gasp!, 1992, I decided to throw my loyalties their way and go take in a game last week. With the tardy but welcome change in the weather, conditions could not have been more perfect, and when I found out you can bring beer and food into the stadium, my love affair with the KBO was a foregone conclusion.
Baseball is baseball, and it didn’t take long for the familiar rhythms and sounds of the ballpark to lull me into a state of contentment. With the oblique rays of the afternoon sun bathing my face and the yang of a cold beer in my right hand balancing out the yin of the warm, small palm in my right, the top of the first inning was peace incarnate.
It was the bottom of the inning, when Lotte came up to bat, that the unique character of Korean baseball began to assert itself. And it’s loud. The leggy and proud of it cheerleaders (Yes, cheerleaders. One thing American baseball is just plain wrong about) began to pump the crowd up as they all sung the leadoff hitter’s song. Not only does every hitter get to choose his own blaring entrance music, many of them have their own personal crowd-sung song cum chant to inspire them at every at-bat or in heroic situations, and the fans seem to know them all.
All of this encouragement failed to inspire the Giants to close the gap that a poor first inning had opened, and by the bottom of the fourth inning the visiting Eagles had widened their lead to 5-1. Between innings I headed down to the 711 to replenish our beer cache (yep, a 711 right in the stadium, full of ice-cold cans “over-priced” by a dollar). Judging by how the Giants were looking, and how Astor had told me in true Cubs fan-esque fashion that the game was as good as done, I figured we’d need them. By the time I got back to my seat the Giants had already started their uncharacteristic 7 run rally. The next 20 minutes were as loud as any I’ve witnessed in a baseball stadium, as each sharp line drive and gap hit propelled the crowd to yet greater heights of volume and excitement. When Lotte’s furious attack was finally quelled, Astor’s prediction proved correct, if a bit premature. The game was as good as done, but my infatuation with Korean baseball is just beginning.