Sunday, March 28, 2010

Korean Baseball Weekend

A few weeks ago, I was invited by some of my students to attend their opening baseball game. They are one of my favorite classes; you may remember them from the baseball Santa picture. Because they are so crazy about the sport, I prepare an article from or every class to talk about. I use the Korean translator in my phone to give them the harder words. So far I've made them read and discuss the release of Jason Bay/signing of John Lackey, the rehab of Dice-K, and the star potential of young Jacoby Ellsbury.

This past Thursday, the plan for meeting up and heading to the field together was presented to me in choppy English by Boo Kwan, my favorite of the bunch. He started by drawing a diagram of a car. He labeled it a Hyundai (the national pride of Korea) and indicated that one of their parents offered to drive us all, and I would have the honor of riding shotgun while the other four crammed in the backseat. He made bullet points for the important info:

-Meet 9:40
-Eat before
-Bring a little money
-Bring a positive attitude

We met at the arranged time in front of the Lotteria below COOLish, and off we went.
Me and the boys (Right to left: Sang Hyun, Jun Hyung, and Jung Min; Boo Kwan not pictured, he took the photo).

The fields were way out in the middle of nowhere, and the grounds had more the feeling of an industrial park than a baseball venue. On one side stood an expressway, and on the other, train tracks on which every few minutes, a KTX train would fly by. It was a spectacle.
There were three separate fields with "dugouts" and "fences" (I use quotations because it all seemed to be established rather temporarily) that had games in progress when we got there and other games going on when we left. There were a lot of people of all ages playing ball. Even some older adult teams made it out.
Boo Kwan Shin at bat.

The game reminded me a lot of Jr. Babe Ruth, back in the glory days when I was still pitching and I wasn't riding the bench. My students weren't quite as lucky. Out of a team of at least 15, there were hardly any substitutions during the game. Boo Kwan was the only one of my students that started, and he played center.
My students play on the Phantoms, and they had some cool uniforms. They faced the Cardinals, who in an interesting mix of Major League franchises you see plenty of in Korea (I've seen guys wearing Yankees shirts and Red Sox hats), they had St. Louis Cardinals jerseys and Cincinatti Reds hats. Put your C's up!

The coach had an overbearing presence, probably one of the largest Korean dudes I've seen here. He may have been 6'4" pushing 300, and when he spoke, the players sure listened. I couldn't get a good picture, as I felt weird enough just hanging around his bench. He's wearing the dark pullover and if you look hard, you'll notice a cigarette in his hand. "Bad News Bears" style, he chain smoked and paced for much of the game.

The Phantoms fell behind 1-0 in the top of the first, but came back strong in the bottom 2nd to make it 6-1. At the top of the 5th, it was 8-1, but capitalizing on walks and key errors, the Cincinatti Cardinals scored 6 runs to come within one.

The game had been going on for a few hours already and the teams scheduled to use the field next had been waiting for awhile, so the ump called it after 5. Lucky for the Phantoms, but I would not have been a happy Cardinal.
At the end, the umpire said some words, and rather than shake hands, the players took a good respectful bow toward one another. My students were glad I came, I was happy they won and hopefully I'll make it out again.

I awoke Sunday feeling great. The sun was shining warmly, it was the last day of the weekend and I was without a hangover. My buddy Brady asked me if I wanted to join him and some other Daegu boys to go see the second game of the season for the beloved Samsung Lions of Daegu. I thought, why not?

It was a perfect early spring day for baseball. The Lions faced off against the LG Twins of Incheon. There are only eight teams in the Korean league and it's something of a glorified minors, but the quality of ball that I saw was pretty good.

I couldn't believe how cheap it was to go! 6,000won for admission ($5) and BYOB is encouraged. I joked you could be a season ticket holder here for the cost of a single Red Sox game. The funny thing is, it's true.

The stadium was quite small, with a capacity just under 14,000. It was totally packed by the first pitch and many ended up sitting on the stairs between sections. We chose to set up along the fence in center field. You can see Stefan and Brady soaking it up above.
The game got off to a rocky start for the Lions. The starting pitcher let up 3 runs in the top of the first. Pictured above is the center fielder breaking for one of the many hits that inning.
The Lions fought back and put up 5 in the third. It was 9-3 by the time we packed up and left in the 7th, and they went on to win 9-4.
Notice the paper visors. It was like rice farmer meets Little Bo Peep. The things people do to beat the sun. Throughout the game, I really enjoyed the crowd participation. In true Korean fashion, it was over the top, complete with mascots doing sexually seductive dances with cheerleaders, Korea-pop overloads, and obnoxious inflatable boom sticks.

Another Korean twist concerned the refreshments. By mid-game, everyone, and I mean everyone and their grandma had ramen instant noodle bowls. Forget hot dogs. Also, nix popcorn and peanuts. The next most popular snacks were grill-your-own fish cakes and dried squid. This called for some crucial changes to the "Take me out to the ballgame" lyrics.
I was a little surprised to see the American flag flying, but hey, whose pastime is this anyway?