Saturday, April 28, 2012

More Baseball in Korea

You may remember a post I did a while back talking about a baseball game I went to in Korea. I went to another one about a week ago, and I wrote about that experience as well. Check it out if you're interested.

This post isn't just a link though. I also thought it would be a good place to share my observations about the Korean game.

For starters, I think one reason baseball is so popular in this country is because the games are usually pretty quick affairs, and that's despite tons of walks (more on that in a minute). Perhaps part of it is that the players don't waste tons of time between pitches fidgeting, the catcher and manager don't make endless trips to the mound, and the commercial breaks between innings are about a minute shorter. Here's an example of a commercial break so you can see for yourself:

In a way I feel like I'm living in the pre-expansion era in MLB, as there are currently only eight teams in the league (though there are plans to expand soon). Unlike the pre-expansion era though, there is a playoff system: The top four finishers are seeded. First #4 plays #3 in a best-of-three series, the winner of that series plays #2 in a best-of-five, and the winner of that plays #1 in a best-of-seven. There's also more fan involvement, where the crowd is hanging on every pitch, unlike modern MLB's more laid-back feel. This video is included in the link above, but I'll put it here to make it easier for you:

I've been trying to learn more about the Korean players this year, and one who's fun to watch is Choe Joon-Seok of the Doosan Bears. He reminds me of Pablo Sandoval. I don't know if the at-bat below would strike the western fan as significantly quicker than an MLB at-bat, but the pitcher is former Indian and Ray Mitch Talbot, an American, so that might be a factor.

I've never been much of an athlete, so I have little experience playing or coaching baseball, but I get the sense that the fundamentals are weaker among Korean players than they are in the U.S.A. It's probably understandable, as our country has a much longer history with the game, so I don't mean that as a knock on Korea. Whenever I watch a game it feels a lot less "smooth" than what I'm used to. The pitchers generally seem to have poorer control, the fielders often seem to get bad jumps on the ball, and errors seem a lot more frequent. In addition to the normal runs (R), hits (H) and errors (E) columns, they have one marked "B," presumably for bases on balls. I think they count hit-by-pitches in that column as well, but those are a distinct minority of the total. If you look at the game account I linked above, you can see that the two teams had 20 walks between them. I think it has more to do with poor pitching than patient batters.

Knowing what I do about Korean culture, I doubt that athletics are a field many parents want their kids going into, since the odds of making it big are slim. I'm hardly qualified to give a course on Korea, as I'm still learning about it myself, but I do know that Korea only recently became a developed country, and most people, particularly the older generation, don't take their security for granted. They want their sons and daughters to go into steady, respectable professions, and I'd imagine that sports don't fall into that category. Koreans love baseball, but it hasn't grown into the behemoth that MLB is in North America, so that would probably explain the relative lack of fundamental development.

I don't know what player salaries are like in Korea, but I'd imagine that these players aren't making the Korean equivalent of tens of millions. Admission to the games here in Gwangju is only 8,000 won (roughly eight U.S. dollars), and people are allowed to bring their own food into the stadium (which presumably cuts down on their revenue). There are concession stands, but I'm usually too focused on the game to visit them, so I can't tell you what the prices are. I'd assume though, that they aren't as astronomical as in America. Overall, I'm sure the players are well off financially, but they probably aren't loaded.

There are foreign-born players in the league, but from what I've read, there's a limit of two per team. It seems that teams prefer to use those roster spots on pitchers, as I don't think I've yet seen a non-Korean position player. Perhaps the reason for that is the low quality of pitching that I've already touched on.

Finally, one last charming thing about the Korean baseball league: the games are all played within a fairly small division of land, so it's about the size of an intrastate circuit. A few days ago there was a rainout...of all four scheduled games. It used to happen in the old-time minor leagues, but take my word for it: It still happens today.

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