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Hither and Yon

South Korea’s champion-class baseball fans

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
American baseball fans, maybe U.S. major league baseball in general, have some lessons to learn from the way that diehard Koreans cheer on their teams.
At the final game of the Korea Series, I was surrounded wherever I hung out in the stands by people standing up, swinging plastic bats, singing songs for their teams – in this case the Samsung Lions and the Nexen Heroes.
Never mind that the Lions slaughtered the Heroes, 11-1, copping their fourth victory in game six of the best of seven series. These fans, both for the Lions and the Heroes, stayed until the joyous/bitter end, shouting loudly over every strike, every foul ball every routine popup or groundout.
Lions fans, waving blue and white flags, popping blue balloons, flashing blue-and white towels thoughtfully stuffed into every seat, filled the third-base side of Jamsil Stadium. Nexen fans, not be outdone, waved burgundy-and-white towels and banners, singing and shouting just as loudly from the first-base side. They were loyal to the end, refusing to leave until the final Nexen batter went down, in the bottom of the ninth.
The exuberance of the fans is without a doubt the greatest single difference between Korean and American baseball. You just don’t see Americans cheering with such zest though Americans say Korean baseball isn’t quite major league level.
The fastest pitch I saw in the Lions-Heroes game, or in a couple of other KBO playoff and series games, was 144 kilometers an hour. That’s about 90 miles an hour, pretty fast but slower than the 94-95 mph pitching that’s commonplace in the American big leagues. Nor was the hitting quite so powerful. Home runs don’t happen so often in Korean baseball. I recall only one in that final 11-1 Lions victory — a three-run blast that elevated the score to 7-1 somewhere in the middle of the game.
Jerry Royster, a veteran major leaguer who managed the Lotte Giants for three seasons, once told me that Korean baseball was really double-A or high single-A caliber — meaning that games on average were about the same level as middling minor league affiliates of American major league clubs.
Still, he said, he remembered his time with the Giants as some of the best years of his long career as a player, coach and manager and was confident that some Korean players could have an impact as major leaguers. It used to be said that only pitchers from Korea, like Park Chan-Ho, could make it in the big leagues, but hard-hitting outfielder Choo Shin-Soo has disproved that theory in ten years in the majors, including seven as a star outfielder with the Cleveland Indians.
However, the nature of the cheerleading exemplifies cultural differences — not simply differing levels of enthusiasm — between Americans and Koreans. Just as they shout in unison in demonstrations, so Koreans cheer, chant and sing lustily all together at baseball games. Throughout the game cheerleading dancers resembling K-pop groups on TV gyrate enthusiastically atop platforms especially made for them while drummers and keyboard players bang away, their music, or noise, carried by mega-loudspeakers.
Cheerleaders adorn the sidelines of American football and basketball games, often going through routines as complex and alluring as any on stage or screen, but you hardly see cheerleaders at American baseball games. And when they do appear, they’re on top of the dugouts, not in a special stand. Mascots looking like comic-book characters prance up and down in both Korea and the U.S., but you’re likely to see more of them at Korean games, on the sidelines and in the stands.
Jerry Royster, communicating by email while serving as third-base coach for the Boston Red Sox in their disastrous 2013 season when they finished last in the American League East, observed that baseball was Korea’s “number one sport.”
In the U.S., fan enthusiasm for baseball now ranks below that for American football. At games in the U.S., you’re likely to see as many middle-aged and elderly fans as young people.
Not so in Korea. At the two Samsung-Nexen games that I attended, I was surrounded by young people, including many couples. In the aisle beside my seat, a four-year-old girl was cheering and dancing furiously to the beat of the drum, though I doubt if she knew what was going on down on the field. Rather, she seemed to be following the example of her parents beside her.
One similarity, though, really surprised me. As Samsung fans were going crazy over the Lions’ victory, they were singing, in American English, that standard of U.S. ballparks, “We Are the Champions.” One thing is sure: Koreans are champion fans of what used to be America’s national pastime.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com is a fan of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League and the Washington Nationals in the National League.
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