Suitcase and World: Take Me Out to the (Korean) Ballgame!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Take Me Out to the (Korean) Ballgame!

Lee Jong-wook, outfielder for the Doosan Bears from 2006-2013.  He currently plays for the
NC Dinos.
(Photo by 티스토리 블로그 바람이분다 (130807 잠실야구장 두산#양의지,이종욱).
 Licensed under CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Baseball was born in the US sometime in the late 1860's when semipro national baseball clubs started to be formed.  Since then, the sport has not only become a national past time for Americans but it's become a global phenomenon massing fans in many countries.

The World Baseball Classic is a hugely followed sports exhibition and even the Little League World Series gets major coverage on most sports channels.

Baseball is believed to have been introduced to Korea in 1905 by American missionaries during the Korean Empire, after which it gradually gained popularity.  Today, the sport ranks second in popularity behind football aka soccer.   Korea also has a national team that has participated in the Summer Olympic Games of 1984, 1988, 1996 and 2000. At the 2008 Summer Olympics, it won the gold medal in a final victory against Cuba.

The organizational structure of baseball in Korea is very similar to that in the US but on a much smaller scale.  The governing body of professional baseball is the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) and there are two leagues - the KBO League and KBO Futures League.  The other governing body, the Korea Baseball Association, oversees amateur baseball competitions.

The KBO League was originally founded with six franchises in 1982 and currently has ten franchises throughout the nation.  Unlike US teams which are named after the cities that they are based in, teams in Korea are owned by major Korean companies like Samsung and Kia and so their names reflect the corporate ownership.   Say hello to the Samsung Lions and the Kia Tigers.

Baseball season, in Korea, runs from March to October which is similar to the American playing schedule.

Each Korean team plays 144 games in the regular season, compared to 162 for a US Major League Baseball (MLB) team and each team plays every other 16 times.  No game is allowed to go past 12 innings and the KBO League's season culminates in its championship series, known as the KBO Korean Series.  The All-Star game takes place in mid-July.  Korean pro baseballers also get a bit of a break during the season as every Monday is an off day for the league.

Jamsil Stadium Seoul, home stadium of the Doosan Bears and the LG Twins.
(Photo by By 주전자.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
I think there is at least one baseball stadium in every major US city.  In Korea, there are only eight.  With 10 teams, that means at least two have to share a stadium.  I don't think that ever happens in the US.  As with stadiums in other countries, the Korean fields also have food vendors selling everything from fried chicken (the yummy Korean kind?), pizza, sodas and beer to traditional Korean foods. You can also bring in your own food and drinks.  BUT unlike the US stadiums, there is no assigned seating.  Other  than a "reserved seating" sections for people who pay higher prices, it's first come, first serve.  Unless it's a championship game, stadiums are rarely filled to capacity.   Games always start at 6:30pm Tuesday through Friday (remember, no games on Monday) and at 5:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

Korean baseball games are definitely loud with noise.  There are cheerleaders and mascots to raise the adrenaline level of the crowd. Apparently chants are also common!  Forget the jumbo screen and people doing the wave, check out this video.

Not surprisingly, Korean baseball teams have been able to lure US pro ballers to join them.  However, the KBO places a cap on the number of foreign players allowed on club rosters. The foreign player limit is currently set at three, increased from 2 players from 2014.   Supposedly, there is also a salary cap to prevent wealthier clubs from signing expensive stars and to avoid excessive salary inflation.  When the KBO first opened its doors to foreign players in 1998, their initial salary cap was set at $120,000. The figure was raised to $200,000 in 1999 and then to $300,000 in 2004. Foreign players may only be signed to one-year contracts, and if they are renewed, their annual salary must not be raised by more than 25 percent.  But eyebrows have been repeatedly raised as it became obvious that very high paid US players were signed with Korean teams with starting salaries far exceeding what they were earning playing in the MLB.

The reverse has been happening for quite sometime now.  Currently, there are 4 South Korean players in the MLB.  Hyun-jin Ryu is a starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2013, after spending seven seasons with the Hanwha Eagles, Ryu became the first player from the KBO to join an MLB team via the posting system.  Unfortunately, Ryu sat out most of the 2015 season due to a shoulder injury.  We'll have to see how he fares in spring training leading up to the 2016 playing season.  Another former KBO'er, Shin-Soo Choo, is the right fielder for the Texas Rangers.  Both players were signed with hefty multi-million dollar contracts.  They have arrived at the BIG league!

The O's against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
I am by no stretch of any imagination a baseball fan.  The last time I actually went to a game was in July 2010 when I took my nephew to see the Baltimore Orioles play against the Toronto Blue Jays in Camden Yards.  I managed to get us seats about two rows back from the visitors dugout.  They were great seats - we had an an amazing view of the field.  Needless to say, we had a great time at the game.

We'll be in Korea during the baseball season and we'll likely be in Seoul over two nights.  I would love to catch a game one of the two nights.  Seoul is home to three KBO teams - the LG Twins, the Doosan Bears, and the Nexen Heroes.  The Lions and the Bears are two of the KBO League's top teams having played each other, twice in the past three years, to vie for the KBO Korean Series championship title.  It would be cool to see the Bears play the Lions in rematch of a championship game.  I can only dream!

Year Winner Runner Up
2013 Samsung Lions Doosan Bears
2014 Samsung Lions Nexen Heroes
2015 Doosan Bears Samsung Lions

George is not a die hard baseball fan but I think both of us know enough about the sport to enjoy going to one.  We'll have to check out the game schedules for both the Lions and the Twins as our trip nears and figure out how to get tickets.  Pretty sure we can just walk up to the ticket booth on the night of th game.

There's nothing like being at a live game and I'm sure going to one in Korea will be a unique and memorable experience!