Tharp On: Baseball
It’s playoff time and the Lotte Giants are back in the mix. Chris Tharp takes a look at Korean baseball and the atmosphere in the stands that is like no other. Of course, he only has Seattle to compare it to.
BUSAN, South Korea -- Ah, fall in Busan. Is there any better time of the year? The brutal, sweaty summer—with its endless volley of typhoons—sputters and dies, and cool air and clear skies prevail. BIFF comes to town and transforms our gritty port into Asia’s most glamorous October destination, while the mountains are packed with happy ajummas and ajeosshis ambling along the trails, eating pajeon and drinking makkeoli until they go red in the face, stagger, and eventually fall down.
Happy times, indeed.
If that weren’t enough, there is one other thing that adds oodles of magic autumn in Busan, and that’s baseball.
September and October are the months when the Korean baseball season winds down, and this year holds a lot of promise for fans of the Busan’s mighty Lotte Giants. Our boys from Sajik are currently two games up against the Doosan Bears in the first round of the playoffs.. Even with the departure of power-hitter Lee Dae-ho—who’s currently smacking bats over in Japan—the Giants have had one of their best seasons ever, staying at the front of the pack for most of the spring and summer. They are currently in a great spot to make it to the championship series, and I am slightly optimistic that they could win the whole burrito this time around.
I have to admit that I’m like this every year. For the past four years, the Giants have made the playoffs, only to eat it hard and choke in a manner that can only be described as Special Olympian. Lotte always plays with a lot of determination and heart during the regular season, but once they stumble into the post season, they become the Korean equivalent of the Bad News Bears. It’s almost as if I expect to be catastrophically let down.
Every year, it’s the same: There I am, eyes pasted to the flat screen at the bar, gripping my pint of Cass like a short sword as I watch that final, defeated batter take those last pitches in the ninth inning of the elimination game. He hits a pop up to right field which is easily caught, and that’s that. I bang my head on the bar and screech at the walls; Lotte is once again sent packing, tails between their legs.
But why should I expect anything different? I’m from Seattle, which is the most pathetic sports city in the whole of the United States. We’re a bunch of mumbling, suicidal pussies who are so apathetic that we allowed the Supersonics, the only real professional franchise to bring a title to our city (sorry, WNBA doesn’t cut it), to get sold to a load of rednecks in Oklahoma City. And what did this group of hicks do with such a losing squad? They transformed them into a lean, mean unit that nearly won the NBA championship this year. Get ‘em out of Seattle and they immediately start winning. Imagine that. Anyone have a shotgun I can borrow?
So why do I even care about Lotte Giants baseball? I’m not Korean, nor will I ever be. Busan is my adopted home, not my real one. What stake do I have in their success?
The answer is “none”. But that doesn’t stop me from going wild for them. Hell, if I lived in Daegu, I’d be a big Lions fans, or if I resided in Incheon for years, I’m sure I’d support SK with the same fervor. I just love Korean baseball.
And why is that?
Yes, the level play is pretty good—these guys know what they’re doing—even if they’re not MLB material. But like most of us here, I just love the atmosphere of the games. You can bring in pretty much whatever you want to the park, without so much of a glance from the security. The fans cheer and chant for every player, each of whom has his own unique anthem. Food and drink are cheap and plentiful—the game has more of the feel of a huge party than a sporting event. People guzzle beer, shoot soju, nibble squid and eat simply insane amounts of chicken. (How many are killed for each game? It must be like the Holocaust for them.) Koreans at the game are as friendly as it gets, all high-fives and hugs when Lotte makes a play. And in the eighth or ninth inning, when everyone comes together for a 30,000-person-strong rendition of Busan Galmaegi? I dare the hairs not to stand up on your arm. It’s chilling and wonderful all at the same time.
At home I’ve gone to MLB games—with their price gouging, endless rules, tepid crowds and Stalin-like security. Sure, the level of play is better, but for a straight-up fun (not to mention affordable) experience, give me Korean baseball any day.
So grab a box of chicken and a cold can of Hite and cheer the Lotte Giants as they make a run for it this fall. They could use your help. And what if they don’t make it? What if they come up short again? Well, don’t feel too bad, it could be worse. You could be a Seattle Mariners fan.
Illustration by Michael Roy. See more of his work at: www.michaelroyart.com
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