Posted : 2009-03-25 16:19
Updated : 2009-03-25 16:19

Korea and Baseball

By Choi Yearn-hong

The Korean baseball team is one of the world's best, even though it was defeated by the Japanese in the 10th inning in the 2009 World Baseball Classic final, Tuesday.

Certainly, the baseball game of the century was exhibited. Korea defeated the Venezuela team in the semifinal game. It was a miraculous win over the mighty team with outstanding pitchers and hitters playing for U.S. Major League teams.

The Korean team was the 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalist, so it was not strange for them to beat Venezuela, even though their team was composed of the most powerful hitters from the U.S. Major League. It will be a good memory of the 2009 WBC for all Korean people.

In this column, I would like to disclose some secret Korean baseball history that I know to the readers of The Korea Times. Not many people in Korea know the hidden, somewhat old history of baseball here.

My life has paralleled baseball in Korea. My father was the commissioner of the Korean Baseball Association before the Korean War broke out in 1950.

He was a high-ranking official at the Korean Financial Unions' Organization who was in charge of its semi-professional baseball team, because he was an ardent sports fan.

The organization, which later became the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation (Nonghyup), is still at the same address, in between Gwanghwamun and Seodaemun.

Whenever his team won the four-city tournament ― Seoul, Incheon, Busan and Gunsan ― my mother hosted a feast at my house at Huam-dong which was then the official residence of my father. Famous catcher Kim Young-jo, with his team's hitting power, was my favorite player during my elementary school days.

I played softball during my middle school days. Kim Young-jo was a part-time coach for my high school baseball team. In the 1950s, Joongang High School was known as ``the baseball school,'' or one of the best baseball schools in Seoul.

Almost all my classmates played baseball as their extracurricular activity on the school ground after classes until sunset. There was no grass on the diamond, but we enjoyed sliding into second, third and home base after hitting the ball.

I thought the Korean mind was good for baseball. Baseball became a Korean pastime at the start of the 20th century. The sport, which originated in the United States, landed in Korea with American Christian missionaries under Japanese colonial rule.

During my high school days, high school baseball games at Dongdaemun Stadium attracted a good crowd.

The whole school went to the stadium to cheer its team two or three times a year. The championship game was always exciting. Yoon Chi-young, an old graduate, and famous politician and cabinet member of the Syngman Rhee government, came to the stadium to cheer his team.

He himself played for the Joongang High School during his high school days. He told me his baseball stories whenever I visited his home at Seosomun-dong. During my college days in Seoul, the annual Yonsei-Korea university games attracted students, alumni and general spectators.

Baseball was one of the games they played. The two universities went to Dongdaemun Stadium to cheer their team. That was one university feast other universities envied in the 1960s.

At that time, I was a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)-commissioned army second lieutenant. As a young officer, I met Kim Eung-yong, the then-enlisted solider at the second Korean army headquarters in Daegu.

He later became a famous baseball player in a semi-professional team. I helped him get an extra large soldier's uniform and a free train trip to Seoul. I liked him a lot.

He became a famed baseball player, coach and director. He is the Samsung Lions' CEO. I wonder whether he now remembers his young soldier's life in the 1960s from his CEO office.

Korea's economic development has benefited many people, including baseball players and other athletes. They earn tens of millions of won. They want to be more like American baseball players. Once I wrote an article in my newspaper column saying they should not be greedy.

In it, I asked them to look at the baseball players in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Their earnings were a 10th of that of Korean players. The American baseball players who earn millions of dollars want one more penny than the other players.

That is a disgrace. They are as greedy as the Wall Street executives who earn million-dollar bonuses from the taxpayers' bailout money after they left their companies bankrupt.

Baseball is basically a pitcher's game. How to manage the victory is dependent upon the coach's strategic operation of the pitchers and hitters from the very first inning to the ninth inning, or the indefinite last inning.

Good pitchers, good hitters and good defenses, plus luck, will bring victory. However, the psychology of pitchers and hitters against the opponents will determine victory. Baseball is mysterious until the last out of the ninth inning, or the endless inning if the teams tie at the end of the ninth.

Theoretically, a four-run-generating homerun, or consecutive homeruns, can decide the winner and the loser in the ninth inning. It is thrilling and suspenseful for the players and the spectators.

Therefore, baseball attracts many spectators, including such men as President John F. Kennedy, novelist Ernest Hemingway and columnist George Will.

President Kennedy played baseball for his high school as a right-handed pitcher and third baseman, and greatly enjoyed baseball stories and statistics with his White House advisers, McGeorge Bundy and Theodore Sorenson.

Baseball stories, I am sure, could kick out the depressing politics.

When I first taught at the University of Wisconsin, I visited the Milwaukee Stadium to see a Brewers' games in the 1972-73 academic year. Can you believe who accompanied me? My friend's mother who was visiting Milwaukee.

She asked me to take her to the stadium whenever I visited. Baseball was her favorite sport in the early 1970s. My American friends could not believe in her baseball craziness.

As you know, baseball originated from the United States and so is popular there, so much so that it has been called the national pastime from spring to fall. It has become the national pastime in Korea too.

During my last 10 years at the University of Seoul, I often visited the Jamsil Baseball Stadium, the luxurious grass-covered stadium. Baseball has become many Koreans' favorite sport.

Almost all Korean people know, admire and love coach Kim In-sik, pitchers such as Yoon Suk-min and Bong Jung-keun, hitters such as Kim Tae-kyun, Choo Shin-su and Lee Dae-ho and many other baseball players of the Korean team.

That is the source of miraculous Korean baseball power on the stage of the World Baseball Classic. Congratulations on the Korean baseball team's runner-up performances!

Dr. Choi is a poet and writer. He can be reached at
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