Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Korea Professional Baseball: Koreans in the Outfield

Just try to tell Korea that their baseball league isn't as good as it gets. I'll tell you one thing, Korean baseball fans put Major League Baseball fans to absolute shame. In Korea they have found the secret to making a baseball game constantly entertaining. The secret, which has eluded the MLB for so long, can be revealed in two delightful words - coordinated dance. By the end of the game my voice was hoarse, and I felt like I had participated in a full fledged (yet surprisingly enjoyable) workout. The only workout I have ever gotten from going to an MLB game is by walking to go and get an overpriced beer, and then lifting my right arm to my mouth several dozen times. Do they serve overpriced beer in Korea, you ask? A resounding "No" is the appropriate response. Not only that, but you can bring your own beer (or any alcohol or food, for that matter) into the stadium with no problem. Yes, you read that correctly, and it's nothing short of mind blowing for a North American sports fan. I seem to recall that they won't even let you bring in a sealed water bottle to a Toronto Blue Jays, Raptors, or Maple Leafs game. Korean baseball is a show, and a show not to miss if you're within a few thousand kilometres of Korea. Think Disney World, add in synchronized cheering and dancing, and perhaps a whisper of friendship and camaraderie, and you've got Korean baseball. Oh, and the players aren't bad either. In fact, they're pretty darn tootin' good.
It may not come as a surprise now that we were in the Kia Tigers cheering section.


"Korea Baseball Championship" (also known as "Korea Professional Baseball") all began in the year 1982, right around the time Olivia Newton-John's track "Physical" was riding high on the American charts only 10,000 or so kilometres away. Yes, those are completely irrelevant events, but it helps paint a picture of what a bad time it was for music, and what a good time it was for baseball. The league was initially founded to much fanfare around 6 principal teams, but today there are 8 teams in all. Without further adieu, here they are:
(Source)
  1. Doosan Bears - Seoul (1982) 
  2. Hanwha Eagles - Daejeon (1986)
  3. Kia Tigers - Gwangju (1982)
  4. Lotte Giants - Busan (1975) - According to their website, they were founded seven years before the formation of the league. Hmmmm.
  5. LG Twins - Seoul (1982)
  6. Nexen Heroes (2008) 
  7. Samsung Lions - Daegu (1982) 
  8. SK Wyverns - Incheon (2000) - I didn't know what a Wyvern was either, but upon further research I discovered it was a mythical sea creature of sorts, so not to worry.
  9. NC Dinos - Changwon (2011) - Entering the league in 2013 
What you may or may not notice almost immediately is the fact that these teams are actually named after corporations, as opposed to cities. It's really quite peculiar to me, as I haven't personally ever seen this done in any other league, in any sport. I have to say that it's a brilliant marketing strategy. It would have been interesting to count the amount of times I heard "Kia" whilst in their cheering section. Not to mention the brand loyalty you would inevitably develop for your preferred squad. Think about it - imagine if the Detroit Tigers were really the Ford Tigers, and the Toronto Blue Jays were really the Rogers Blue Jays, and so on. Personally, I can't imagine this ever occurring in the world of North American sports because of potential fan backlash. There was (and still is) enough backlash and controversy around changing the name of Toronto's "Skydome" to the "Rogers Centre." However, corporate marketing has continually played a larger role in professional sport, so who knows how our beloved leagues will progress. The Korean league actually began with this format, and I can't imagine there was any uproar at all considering the reverence Koreans show to their successful homegrown companies. Honestly, I'm sure that Korea was just happy to have a healthy, competitive league of their own in the face of Japan's competitive "Nippon Professional Baseball" league which officially began 30 or so years prior. Unfortunately, it's not a rarity for a player excelling in the Korean league to move to the Japanese league and play for one of their franchises.

There were five of us in all that encompassed our own little cheering section. There was, of course, Bri and my myself, who tend to be prominent players in almost every blog. Ian, our incredibly helpful and wonderful friend from Seoul, also took part and played a rather vital part in getting tickets for us online in the first place. The fourth and fifth individuals hailed not from the Korean capital, but rather American and Australian capitals, respectively. It's not the first time that Grant or Neil have made an appearance in my blog, but certainly the first time on the Asian continent. They arrived in Korea only days before the game, but were ready and rearing to go when the first pitch was thrown. Grant was one of my seven housemates when I lived in Oslo, and Neil lived only minutes away in Oslo's Sogn Studenby. Both Bri and sincerely appreciated their visit, and it's something I'm sure we'll always cherish and remember. Kudos to both of those fine gentlemen.

Enough about my mushy social life, let's talk about the exhilarating match between the LG Twins and the Kia Tigers. Actually, firstly we should talk about the fans, which were in essence what made the game so exhilarating. The excitement and intensity in the air was nothing short of palpable. We walked up the ramp and up to our assigned seats and were astonished. The noise was enough to make you squint from sensation overload, and we soon realized that the entire stadium was essentially two cheering sections. Fortunately, it was quickly apparent that we were in the better cheering section of the two sides, as Kia quickly went broke out into a commanding lead. Even when there was a single, or a casual play on the field, the crowd went berserk. If you factor in the fact that you are allowed to bring in your own alcohol, then you can imagine that the winning team's cheering section is a giant party. In terms of videos on my blog, I essentially vowed that I would only post what readers wouldn't be able to adequately visualize themselves. It was such an exhilarating and unique experience that I'm just going to have to go ahead and show you a momentous clip. Keep in mind that this is a baseball game, and also that this wasn't nearly the most intense moment of the match. However, it should give you a good idea of just what I've been chattering about so far.

video
 
This video alone gives you enough reason to head to a game if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity. As you may be able to tell from the video, the crowd is wildly passionate, and, not surprisingly, quite homogenous. We were the rare foreign fans who stuck out like sore thumbs, but cheered in delightful unison with the crowd. We may not have known the exact words, but by the end we were humming along and mouthing words with a fiery fervor (this may or may not have had to do with the spirits we had consumed between innings 1 and 9). It turns out that the players themselves are also predominately Korean, which I think is quite commendable. Two foreign players are allowed to play for each team and that's the bottom line. Well, at least I still have a chance. All jokes aside, it was simply impossible to lose enthusiasm during the game. There was an emphatic man on top of the dugout revving us up, and if he didn't work, then they brought out the tiger mascot, and if he/she/it didn't work, then they brought out the female K-Pop-look-a-like dance squad. Needless to say, it always worked and the crowd always remained at the top of their cheering game. At times, it was easy to forget there was a baseball game going on in the background.

 Jamsil Baseball Stadium is the ideal place to view a game in Korea. It holds a respectable 30,000 or so fans, and overlooks the impressive Seoul Olympic Stadium. However, I can't communicate enough how it was the experience of the game that made it so fantastic, not even necessarily the game on the field or the stadium. The setting, crowd, weather, entertainers and baseball game all form together to make an enticing way to spend an evening. So, if it's possible (and anything is possible), head down to Jamsil Stadium, buy a sleek jersey, blow up some of those yellow inflatable clappers, and join the cheering crowd.


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