The previous weekend I’d been down to Busan to watch Doosan Bears take on Lotte Giants in the fourth game of the first play-off series. Doosan had won that game to square the series at two games each before subsequently winning the decider to progress to the next round of games, this time with regular season runners-up Samsung Lions. This game was the third of that five match series and the first to take place at Doosan’s home Jamsil stadium.
I woke up that morning nearly four hundred kilometres away in Ulsan, where I’d been watching Lee Dong Gook playing for Jeonbuk the evening before. It’s a five hour journey or so back to Seoul which meant another early start.
I was at the Ulsan Express Bus Terminal by about ten to six in the morning, looking to get a ticket on the first available luxury bus. Whilst the first normal bus went at six, I had to wait until twenty past for one with the more comfortable seating. I whiled away the time watching the sun come up outside the front entrance.
Five hours later I was back in Seoul and a couple of hours after that I met up with Jen outside the Jamsil stadium. It was busier than I’d ever seen it before with fewer touts selling and with lots of people holding up notices stating that they were looking for tickets.
We wandered around for a while near the ticket office but as nobody seemed to be selling any tickets we had to head back down the steps against the flow of the crowd into the subway where I’d seen a couple of touts as I arrived. We found one and after he made a big fuss of trying to conduct the deal out of sight we got a couple of 15,000 won outfield tickets for 50,000 won apiece. Whilst that seems expensive by Korean baseball standards, it’s still only twenty-eight quid which is about what I’d have to pay to watch the Boro back home. With our current form, the baseball seemed like better value even at the inflated rates.
The first two matches in the play-off had been shared, with Doosan winning the previous game two days earlier. Jen and I had watched the end of that match on Friday night in a bar in Gangnam. Earlier that evening we’d paid a visit to a coffee shop. Nothing remarkable about that, I hear you say, apart from the notion of me actually being in a coffee shop on a Friday night. Or any night, come to think of it. This was no ordinary coffee shop though. This coffee shop had a Doctor Fish section. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular facility, it consists of a couple of fish tanks that are sunk into a platform. When you have swilled down the last of your fancy cat droppings latte, you can remove your shoes and socks and after washing your feet, dangle them into one of the fish tanks.
The fish then nibble away at your feet, removing surplus bits of dead skin, but leaving useful stuff like toes. I don’t know if the fish are specially trained or if it’s just instinctive, but they seem to know exactly what they are supposed to do without any prompting.
We tried the tank with the small fish in first. These were about an inch long and reminded me a bit of whitebait. I kept that to myself though as the tables were turned tonight and I didn’t want any of them to nip me a little bit harder than normal in revenge. I’m not sure if our feet had more dead skin than normal or whether the fish hadn’t been fed that day but we soon had about twenty of the small fish getting stuck in to each foot. It was a mildly ticklish experience, probably a bit more enjoyable for us than it was for the fish.
Good as it was though, it was just delaying the encounter with the bigger fish. I shuffled across from one tank to the other and had a look. These fish must have averaged about three inches long and they returned my gaze, rising to the surface and opening and shutting their mouths like babies anticipating their bottles.
I sat there for a couple of minutes, teasing them by lowering one foot towards the water. Eventually, mainly because it would have been too embarrassing not to, I plunged a foot into the water. Whilst the small fish had been a bit peckish, this lot were ravenous and the water bubbled as if they were piranhas being fed pork pies.
I used to have a tank of piranhas. When I got married the first two items I bought for the house were a dishwasher and a tank of piranhas. It’s no wonder that in the brief time we were together I was never trusted to go to the shops alone again. Anyway, one day the thermostat on the heater failed and the change in the water temperature caused the piranhas to turn on each other. As soon as one looked a bit weak, the others would attack it until eventually just one piranha remained. I think he died later in the day, probably from overeating.
Anyway, the good news was that the creatures nibbling my feet in the coffee shop weren’t piranhas. They could give you a decent nip with their gums though and the effect of about thirty of them fighting over the skin on my feet was a curious sensation. It was quite ticklish but was accompanied with a sense of apprehension that one of them might just get carried away and take a toe off.
After about twenty minutes we reckoned that it was probably time to move on, whilst we could still walk. My feet did tingle a little as we walked through the streets of Gangnam, no doubt smarting from the thousands of tiny bites that had just been inflicted. I’d recommend it though as a reason to visit a coffee shop. Even on a Friday night.
So, back to the Sunday and the third game between Doosan and Samsung. There were still around twenty minutes to the start when we made our way inside, but the outfield was just about full. Even the seats that had nobody sat in them had been reserved with coats, scarves and bags of food and drink. Eventually we found two together towards the back on the Doosan side of the scoreboard. There was still plenty of space in the reserved seats section of the main stand, in fact some of those seats remained empty for the entire game despite it being a sellout.
As the game started the Doosan fans released a few hundred white balloons into the air. I’d seen this done at a football game recently where the rain drove the balloons back down again and the ref had to stop the game for players to pop them. The weather was better today though and they safely floated up and away towards the flight path into Incheon Airport.
Samsung struck first and went 3-0 up in their first innings, their early dominance causing the Doosan starting pitcher to get hooked early in the second with the score having moved to 4-0.
Doosan fought back though and by the fourth innings they had turned the early deficit into a 5-4 lead, which gave their fans something to get excited about. A further run in the sixth innings took it to 6-4.
Samsung drew level at six all in the eighth with two runs including a single homer from pinch hitter Cho Yeong Hoon. The Samsung fans weren’t as numerous or as vocal as the Lotte Giants fans had been in first play-off series, but they did have two sizeable inflatable lions to help compensate.
Whilst the Doosan fans might not have had inflatable lions they did have lots of balloons left over from their grand gesture at the start which were distributed for a display that didn’t quite match the one they had done with sparklers the previous week. They also made good use of those inflatable sticks that you bang together.
Doosan had plenty of opportunities to clinch the game in the ninth but didn’t take them and we were into overtime. I’m guessing that’s what they call it anyway. The teams play up to three additional innings to try to separate them. What happens if they are still level after twelve I don’t know. Perhaps the team with the best inflatables wins. I was amazed at how many people were leaving as the extras innings were being played. This wasn’t some meaningless end of regular season game but the playoffs.
It was getting close to seven o’clock when after a scoreless tenth Samsung scored two runs in the eleventh, followed by a game winning three from Doosan Bears for a 9-8 win and a 2-1 series lead.
The lions were deflated and packed away, the remaining Doosan fans partied and we slipped away after almost five hours of a closely contested match. The next baseball game for me will be the second match of the Korean Series where the eventual winner of this contest will take on SK Wyverns at their Munhak Stadium next Saturday.