On Sunday evening I watched my first ever baseball game. I’d watched bits of games on the telly before, usually in a bar with one eye on the match and the other on whatever else was going on and that’s how it had been on Saturday night. I chatted away on autopilot to a work colleague about the merits of the various waitresses and how well they were managing to fill their jeans, whilst watching Doosan Bears take on the LG Twins on the not so big screen. The names don’t really help you much in identifying where the teams are from, just who owns or sponsors them and are perhaps a little more misleading as the LG Twins appeared to have more than two players and there was nothing particularly ursine about the other lot. However, I knew that the LG team was based in Seoul because I’d seen posters at work advertising their matches. A little more digging and it turned out that Doosan Bears were also from Seoul. Not only from Seoul, but they actually shared a stadium. As baseball is the biggest sport out here that meant that the one eye that wasn’t following the waitress was actually watching the Korean equivalent of Roma v Lazio.
Whilst I struggled to work out what was actually going on I did manage to notice that the next game between the two was the following evening. Baseball is a bit like that apparently. I’m pretty sure in America the season runs for about a hundred and sixty games or so over a period of a few months. Note the vagueness there. I’m never particularly precise in these things but with baseball I have even less idea than normal. Anyway, as far as I know they play each other a lot of times and quite often for three or four nights in a row. I suppose it’s not a lot different from cricket, but with each match being a one-day game in its own right rather than part of a four or five day game.
So, as the next game was going to be on the following day and only a few stops on the subway from me I thought I might as well go along. I had been intending to go for a hike but I’d played my first game of football for a few weeks earlier that morning and my knees were starting to stiffen up. An evening at the baseball was probably better for them.
The baseball stadium is next door to the Olympic Stadium, you know, the one where Ben Johnson won and then lost his Olympic gold in 1988 and Linford Christie came close to losing his bronze for a positive test that he successfully blamed on ginseng. If ginseng does make you run faster the Koreans should be picking up more medals than they currently manage as it is pretty popular stuff here. They sell the roots on street corners and add to it just about everything from soup to medicine. I wouldn’t be surprised if they stick a bit of it in an ice cream instead of a flake.
I had ginseng chicken the other day for lunch. In a rare deviation from my normal lunchtime routine of taking pot luck in the canteen, blindly joining the shortest queue with Mr. Park, I was accosted by my boss and dragged off to a local restaurant with a couple of other colleagues. I’m not sure what the occasion was, but it made a pleasant change. I’d seen photos of ginseng chicken before and it’s a whole chicken in a pot, so I thought that it was something to share. Perhaps my presence was needed to justify ordering two chickens between four people rather than the awkward choice of deciding between one chicken or two when there are three people. To my surprise we got one each, but they were quite small. They were stuffed with rice and there were sections of ginseng root, half chestnuts and onions in the water with them. I’m getting better with the metal chopsticks these days but dissecting a whole floating chicken wasn’t the easiest task. There were a few side dishes including some quite mild whole green chillies, radish in a spicy red sauce that made it resemble patatas bravas and some other unidentifiable pickle stuff. It was pretty good, although it didn’t encourage me to take the stairs back to my office on the fourteenth floor rather than the lift.
Next time, apparently, we are going to have baby octopus legs, sliced off whilst the creatures are still alive to give a sensation similar in your mouth to that of Space Dust I imagine. My boss warned me to chew them carefully when we do have them as there have been cases of the octopus exacting revenge in some way. I’m not too sure what they could do apart from maybe give your tonsils a bit of a squeeze on the way past but I nodded solemnly as I tend to do these days.
Anyway, back to the baseball. Whilst I knew what day the game was on I didn’t know what time and as the websites for Korean Baseball tend to be in Korean I nipped along on the morning to find out and have a look around. I established that the game started at 5pm and with a bit of difficulty chatted to a couple of food sellers who were already setting up their stalls six hours before kick off. Throw off? Pitch off? Whatever. One of them, a girl of about twenty, knew enough English to let me know that the ticket office opened at three. The other was a bloke of about fifty and he had clearly decided that I was a bit slow in the head and the best way to help me out was to keep saying the same thing in Korean over and over again until its meaning suddenly became clear to me. After a while, I used the knowledge I obtained from the girl and held up three fingers. He smiled indulgently, obviously pleased that his efforts to get the information into my thick skull via repetition had succeeded. With a few hours to spare I left them to it and headed off to buy an ironing board before returning later that afternoon. The ironing board doesn’t have any relevance, so don’t think you’ve missed something. I’m not going to come back to it later either so you can forget all about it if you want. It was just where I went and another of those bits of kit that you need to buy when you are working away and this was my time to do that. Every week I seem to discover something that I don’t have, but need. Like a colander or a bedside lamp By the time I fill my apartment it will no doubt be time to move on and do it all again.
Anyway, back to the baseball again. The area around the stadium was completely different at four o’clock to what it had been earlier that day, with thousands of people milling around, queuing for tickets, buying food and throwing baseballs to each other. Eating seems to be a big thing at baseball games with dozens of small stalls outside the stadium encouraging people to stock up before going in. Most of them sold exactly the same products, dried squid and octopus, sometimes flat, sometimes tentacles sticking out of a cup like MacDonald’s fries, bottles of water, beer and soju. Once you got beyond the stalls you got all the burger and fried chicken franchises and the small convenience stores that were built into the stadium. No one need ever go hungry at a baseball game.
I’d had a look at the prices of the tickets that morning. You could get a VIP one for 50,000 that got you a seat straight behind the catcher. He is the wicketkeeper bloke. They then had a variety of prices for the main curvy stand that covered the 90 degree angle where play took place, 30,000, 15,000, 12,000 and 9,000 won depending upon how far away you got from the VIP bit. You could also sit around the other side of the stadium for 5,000 won, but you were at least 120m away from the action there. I should have taken the advice of the old bloke who suspected that I wasn’t all there and got back for 3pm because the ticket offices all had large queues. Luckily there were some touts. One offered me a ticket for 25,000 but I turned him down because I couldn’t see the face value price. I’d didn’t want to be sat miles away looking at tiny figures in the distance. After a while the same tout came back with a 9,000 won ticket which he sold me for 10,000. It was in the main stand but high up, which wasn’t a bad place to be I reckoned, if I was to get an overview of what was going on.
The ticket details were quite good. In amongst all the Korean stuff I could work out the gate number, the block number and my seat and row. That’s better than the usual football ones where I tend to only know the stand I’m supposed to be in. I went through the turnstile where my ticket wasn’t scanned, just checked by a bloke who didn’t seem to pay it much attention. Inside the concourse were more food stalls and plenty of merchandising shops, it was as if the game was taking place in a shopping mall. I went up another tier to find the entrance for my seat and within ten yards of my block were a KFC, a Burger king and a convenience store. I bought a couple of cans of beer from the convenience store and went up to my seat. There was still half an hour to go to kickoff and the stadium looked to be about a third full. My seat was pretty good, it was maybe ten rows from the back and just far enough around for me to be able to watch the action without looking through the protective net that spans the area directly behind the batsman. A nice touch was a drinks holder on the back of the seat in front, perfectly sized for a can of beer. The pre-match entertainment consisted of a few couples taking turns to run around the bases holding a Doosan Bears flag. For the first three bases the bloke would piggyback his girlfriend and then for the run from third to fourth base, they would swap over and she would try to piggyback him or else they would do that wheelbarrow thing where she walked on her hands while he held her legs. Invariably they would end up in a heap in the dirt. I can just imagine the conversation the next day.
“How did your date go last night, Dong Bong?”
“Not bad mate, she was really game, I got to third base in about thirty seconds. Thought we were going to go all of the way but the tease cried off with a broken back.”
As the start time neared the place started to fill up. It turned out that I was in amongst the Doosan Bears fans, with the LG Twins fans being in the other half of the curve. The woman in the seat next to me was telling me that she was a Lotte fan but would be supporting Doosan today. Me too then. She went on to explain how everything worked with a lot more patience than I might have had if I’d tried to explain cricket to her. The game was preceded by a popstar singing the Korean national anthem and then a famous female skater threw the first pitch.
Both sets of fans made far more noise than I can ever recall at a football match, although they were helped by songs being played through loudspeakers and most of them having those inflatable sticks to bang together. Tunes that I recognized included Dancing Queen, Land of Hope and Glory and that Small World song from the Disney ride. There was also a Mexican wave that didn’t really take off and then a slow motion Mexican wave which I’d never seen anywhere before.
Every now and again the ball would be hit into the crowd, usually by mistake after ballooning over the protective fence. There would be murmurs of concern from those around me and a concerted effort to catch the ball from those nearby. Perhaps this would explain why grown men take baseball gloves with them. It reminded me of when I was a kid and I would wear my shorts and socks under my clothes when I went to the match just in case they were a man short and Jack Charlton needed me. I didn’t have a Boro shirt, but I reckoned they probably had spares of those. They always had sufficient players though, so I never got the call.
The game lasted for four hours with the LG Twins winning 8-5 and with the help of the girl next to me I’d just about grasped what was going on by the end. They score a point every time a batsman gets all the way around the bases and back to the dugout. You don’t score any more for a ‘home run’ where you whack it into the crowd and get all the way around in one, but it might bring you three points if you had team mates on, say, second and third bases and they were able to run home too. Batsman are out if they miss three balls deemed to be within hitting range and they get a free walk to first base if the pitcher throws four ‘wides’ to them. Each team has nine innings and an inning is over when three of the batsmen are out, either caught or ran out. It seemed as if you could be ran out if the fielder on the base you were running to caught the ball anywhere near the base. He didn’t seem to have to touch the base with the ball or even his foot. I don’t know how many players make up a team or whether the pitchers were allowed to have a bat. I don’t think it would have suffered as a spectacle if the game had been played over five innings rather than nine and had finished in about two hours. As a cricket fan, I’d rather watch test cricket over five days than the shortened form, but I can see now why someone without much of an interest would enjoy a game of 20/20 more than a one day or five day game.
There was a lot more rubbish left in the seats at the end than you would see at a football match in Korea, although enough had been brought down to the concourses to mean that large piles appeared every ten yards or so. The tube coped very well with the crowds and I was back in my apartment in time to catch the end of the Wolves v Stoke game on the telly.
Meanwhile, whilst all this was going on, Jeonbuk were maintaining their unbeaten league record with a 3-3 draw away to Pohang Steelers. It was a close run thing though as they were 3-1 down with time running out. Lee Dong Gook is on a bit of a roll at the moment though and with his fifth goal in four games he pulled one back with four minutes to go. The Brazilian Eninho then got the equalizer for Jeonbuk with an injury time penalty. The draw left Jeonbuk in fifth place in the table with 12 points from 6 games, four points behind leaders Ulsan Horang-i, but with a game in hand.