Thursday, January 12, 2006
Updated: March 14, 9:32 PM ET
Welcome to Korea
By Joe Connor
Special to ESPN.com
Location: Eastern Asia, southern half of the Korean Peninsula bordering the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and the Yellow Sea; Military Demarcation Line within the 2.5-mile wide Demilitarized Zone has separated Communist North Korea from Democratic South Korea since 1953
Feb. 26-March 2, site TBA
Exhibitions (in Tokyo)
March 1 vs. Lotte, 9 p.m. (2/28)
Schedule (Pool A in Tokyo)
March 2 vs. Chi. Taipei, 9:30 p.m. ET
March 3 vs. China, 9 p.m. ET
March 5 vs. Japan, 4 a.m. ET
Size: 38,368 square miles, or slightly larger than Indiana
Population: 48 million
People: Homogeneous (except for about 20,000 Chinese)
Capital: Seoul (population: 10.5 million)
Baseball (and other interesting) notes
Most known for: Talented pitchers; creating tube-shaped noisemakers (known to U.S. sports fans as "ThunderStix," but "CheerStix" in South Korea); Korean War and "Demilitarized Zone" separating North and South Korea.
Quotable: "I take pride that I was the first [to play MLB]." -- Chan Ho Park, 2005
Famous national anthem verse: "With such a will, such a spirit, loyalty, heart and hand, Let us love, come grief, come gladness, this, our beloved land!"
Baseball's South Korean debut: Introduced by American missionaries in the early 1900s where it was played in schools and with Christian groups.
South Korea's baseball hotbeds: Baseball is popular in the major cities, particularly Seoul, Busan, Incheon, Taegu and Gwangju, among others.
Number of South Korean-born currently signed to MLB organizations: 12.
First Korean-born player in MLB: Chan-Ho Park, in 1994, with Los Angeles Dodgers.
Most notable MLB exports: Park, Hee-Seop Choi, Byung-Hyun Kim, Jae Seo. (Choi, Kim and Seo played together at Gwangju's Jeil High. Nickamed "Big Choi," in 1995, coach Sae-Hwan Heo urged the freshman clean-up hitter to focus solely on batting and give up pitching. Heo also converted Seo from a third baseman to a pitcher, and suggested Kim change his delivery from sidearm to submarine-style because he thought it would be more suitable for his smaller frame).
Ones to watch in the future: Shin-Soo Choo (Seattle Mariners); Jae-Kuk Ryu (Chicago Cubs).
Korea's baseball weather: Hot.
Biggest sports competitors: Soccer, basketball.
Only in South Korea: A "stick balloon" as important in your hands as a some good food. Known mostly in the U.S. as "ThunderStix," and in the rest of the world as "Cheer Stix," you can blame Seoul entrepreneur Duk-Hyung Hwang if these 65-centimeter long vinyl clubs give you a headache. When banged together, they create a deafening, thunderous sound that got the Anaheim Angels "Rally Monkey" Katie fired up during the 2002 World Series; she couldn't stop from jumping up and down on the scoreboard screen during the late innings of Game 6 as the Halos overcame a 5-0 deficit to defeat Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants, 6-5. The next day, more than 44,000 banged away at the pair of sticks given out as they entered the ballpark, and Anaheim won its first ever World Series. ... Communist propaganda is blasted from loudspeakers while still standing on non-Communist soil (at the DMZ).
Amateur and international competition
Number of Koreans playing organized baseball: About 7,000.
Amateur highlights: Team from Seoul won back-to-back Little League World Series titles in 1984 and 1985; won World Championships in 1998, beating U.S.; won Gold Medal at 1998 Asian Games; won bronze medal at 2000 Olympics after beating Japan.
Biggest international rival: Japan.
Wood/aluminum use/rules: From high school, hitters use wood bats.
Other important notes: Democratic South Korea is in the process of forming one "Korean" Olympic team for the 2008 Games, with communist North Korea's athletes included. Although North Korea is a member of the IBAF, it's extremely unlikely any North Koreans would comprise any future Korean Olympic baseball team.
Contact information: Korea Baseball Association
4th 946-16 Dogok-dong, Kangnam-ku, Seoul 135-270
Tel: (+82-2) 572 8411
Fax: (+82-2) 572 7041
Korea Baseball Organization (KBO)
Overview: Each of the eight teams plays an approximate 130-game regular season schedule, with the top four clubs advancing to the playoffs. The top two teams await the winner of the best-of-five series between the No. 3 and No. 4 teams. The winner then plays the No. 2 team in a best-of-five series to determine who will oppose the No. 1 team in the Korea Series, which is best-of-seven. Extra inning games are limited to 12 innings (When a 12-inning game is finished at the same score, two teams share the draw). Each team is allowed two foreign-born players. Like in Japan, teams are named after a large corporation where corporate bragging rights are on the line when teams compete.
League Web site: http://www.koreabaseball.or.kr/.
Teams and the cities that host them: Taegu's talented Samsung Lions; Gwangju's wildly popular Kia Tigers; Seoul's LG Twins and Doosan Bears; Incheon's SK Wyverns; Busan's Lotte Giants; Suwon's Hyundai Unicorns and Daejeon's Hanwha Eagles who have one of the friendliest mascots around.
Most successful franchise: Kia Tigers have won nine titles, but haven't won since 1997.
Biggest rivalry: Samsung Lions-Kia Tigers.
Famous alums (with MLB ties): Julio Franco (2000, Samsung Lions); Kevin Mitchell (2000, Kia Tigers); Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens (2000, SK Wyverns); Carlos Baerga (2001, Samsung Lions); Salomon Torres (2001, Samsung Lions).
Notable record breakers: Seung-Yeop Lee shattered Sadaharu Oh's Asian single-season home run record by hitting 56 dingers in 2003.
MLB talent-level comparison: Triple-A (on a good day); Double-A (on a bad day).
Show me the money: Foreign-born players earn about $170,000-200,000 (U.S.) per season, and are usually signed to one-year contracts initially. Only the very best Korean players earn about the same amount. The minimum salary is about $20,000 (U.S.).
Free-agent policy: Korean pros are locked into a seven-year contract before they can be posted to an MLB team and nine years before they can test free agency.
Best ballpark: Ballparks in Korea are less than 30,000 in capacity and are all outdoor, with a mix of natural grass at some parks and artificial turf at others. Like in Japan, there is often a large amount of foul territory. Moonhak Stadium in Incheon is Korea's most modern and pleasant place to catch a ballgame. The ballpark features an excellent sound system, and the SK Wyverns cheerleading squad is among the most enthusiastic in the league. Incheon is where U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur helped push back the North Koreans during a key moment of the Korean War. Suwon Stadium, home of the Hyundai Unicorns, is the nicest urban ballpark on the peninsula, smack dab in the city streets of Suwon. Seoul's ballpark, shared by the LG Twins and Doosan Bears, is across the street from the main stadium used during the 1988 Summer Olympics. Very few ballparks have actual "dugouts," with most at street level.
Best ballpark food and drink: "Kim-bobs" -- rings of seaweed with a center of crab, lobster and Korean sausage pieces -- with an OB beer are a favorite, as are standard Western fare.
Ballpark atmosphere: Korean baseball games feature female cheerleaders like those found at college football games in the U.S. Usually one male "cheerleader" will blow a whistle, employ a megaphone and begin popular team chants to get fans fired up. Like Japan, a strong contingent of fans also follow their favorite team on the road. Kia, Samsung and LG traditionally have enjoyed the best attendance.
Wildest entertainers: Kia Tigers fans and their cheering squad. Honorable mention to Busan Giants and SK Wyverns fans and their cheering sections.
South Korean speak: "Yagu" means baseball in Korean. "Yagujang" is a baseball field.
Additional notes: In general, most foreign-born players explain that umpires have a big strike zone in the KBO. ... Busan's Sajik Stadium and Seoul's ballpark are among the most pitcher friendly. ... Teams hold fall camps in Thailand and other neighboring countries. ... Teams hold spring camp in Hawaii, some at Aloha Stadium, while others have trained at Pirate City in Bradenton and at other sites in Florida. ... In 2005, Myung-Hwan Park was caught wearing frozen cabbage leaves in his cap to keep cool during games, which led to a league ban on the delicacy under the lid. Park, a talented pitcher for Doosan, began keeping cabbage leaves in his cap in 2004 after learning that Babe Ruth employed the same tactic decades ago.
Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com. He has a Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com.