Ah, baseball – it’s as Korean as taekwondo or apple pie. It used to be the most popular sport, by all accounts – though that title now belongs to soccer – but baseball still enjoys an enthusiastic following here in South Korea. This past week, in the hallowed enclosure of Jamsil Stadium, I bore witness to the rollicking hordes and the modern gladiators of Korean Professional Baseball.
The Korean league offers 8 teams for the competition-thirsty masses:
The Doosan Bears
The Hanwha Eagles
The Kia Tigers
The Lotte Giants
The LG Twins
The Samsung Lions
The SK Wyverns
The Nexen Heroes
“Now, slow down, slugger!” you’re saying. “I can’t believe Seoul, the biggest city and capital of South Korea, doesn’t have a team, you scallywag!” Actually, it has 3 teams – the Bears, the Twins, and the Heroes – but you won’t find “Seoul” in their names, nor the name of any city in any team name. This is because the names of Korean baseball teams bear the names of the Korean companies (or, uh, business conglomerates) that own and sponsor the team. Weird. Can you imagine rooting for teams like the Google Dodgers, the Starbucks Mariners, or the Lehman Brothers Expos? Which companies would sponsor which teams…that’s a bar-stool conversation I want to have one day. Who knows, maybe America will one day adopt this practice. After all, naming stadiums after companies is already ubiquitous. That being said, here’s an ironic picture…
And yes, smart alec, the Korean in the picture translates to “baseball stadium”, not the name of the park. Seriously though, the stadium does have a name. Jamsil stadium.
Anyway, the game I went to was between the Doosan Bears of Seoul and the Lotte Giants of Busan. Now, based on my very scientific observations, the Doosan Bears are the most popular team in Korea, though my records show they’ve only won 3 championships in the league’s 30 year history. Regardless, they’re the most popular team in the biggest city – the Yankees of Korea.
Now, as the night wore on, I experienced many of the traditions of a Korean baseball game. Some of these practices have similarities to American baseball. The food, for instance, is an important part of the game. In the US, the ballpark wiener is a baseball staple. What do they eat in Korea? You guessed it – a bag of chicken.
Yes, it’s a just a bag of chicken. Seriously. Other popular options are whole pizzas, grilled or dried squid (of course), and Burger King. The food is cheap too. The bag of chicken was only about $8 (and it feeds at least 2 and comes with drinks). You could buy a can of beer for $2, as opposed to the loan you have to take out to by a beer at a ballpark in America. I ate well.
One major difference was the involvement of the crowd. To begin with, each team has their own fan section, so when you buy your tickets, you have to report who you’re rooting for so you’re seated in the appropriate section. The fans of the home team sit on the first-base side, the away team fans on the third-base side. The main difference, however, is how rowdy the fans are. Each section was chanting, singing, and taunting the entire game. This would be a good time to talk about this guy…
Him. He is responsible for leading the chants, songs, and taunts, and he was a dynamo – a charismatic showman thrusting his hips and prodding the crowd to be louder. He was backed up, of course, by the “cheer girls.” Don’t call them “cheerleaders”.
There’s no denying how crazy the crowd was. They were hanging on every pitch. Guffawing at every mistake by the other team. This was a shock to me coming from Chicago, where some fans buy Cubs tickets just to work on their tans.
Also, each team seems to have their own traditions and cheers. After the 5th inning, a bunch of guys started walking through our section to give everyone an orange plastic bag. “What’s this for?” I began to wonder. Then everyone started tying their bag off, leaving it inflated with air. What? Then, everyone began to place the bags on their heads, using the handles as ear straps. This is not a joke. The whole section wore the bag hats for the remaining 4 innings.
I’m still not sure how the bags related to anything. They were never used at part of a song or dance. I thought it would be fun if everyone popped them at once and screamed, “Bags!” Instead, at the end of the game, I used the bag to throw away chicken bones.
It was an experience, and even though I sat in the Lotte Giant’s section, I bought a Doosan hat.
Here are some other facts about Korean baseball:
-South Korea won the Gold Medal for Baseball at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
-The team names change as the ownership changes. Some teams have gone through several name changes. The Doosan Bears used to be the OB Bears
-The DH is used by the entire league. Pitchers don’t bat.
-In the game I watched, all the players were Korean except for 2 – both of the starting pitchers. The starting pitcher for the Lotte Giants was Ryan Sadowski, who pitched 6 games for the San Francisco Giants in 2009. His stats are here.
-Shin Soo Choo is a native Korean who is currently an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians. He is very popular in Korea, and many Indian games are televised here so Koreans can watch him play.
-Names the Nexen Heroes have gone through: 1982-85, The Sammi Superstars/1985-87, The Chongbo Pintos/1988-95, The Taepyungyang Dolphins/1996-2007, The Hyundai Unicorns.
-I’m for Doosan.
Well, there it is. I’ll end with what you’ve all been waiting for: more pictures of the cheer girls.