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Sure, you can cheer for opening day of baseball in the States (actually, this year it was in Australia). But the games are a vast desert of silence compared to South Korea. Korean baseball houses some of the most passionate, hilarious, and intense sports fans in the world. They pile in with coolers full of beer, pizzas, fried chicken, and they drink until the final out. If that’s not enough, what happens each time a player comes to bat, and between each pitch, is the most exciting atmosphere in sports. And no where is this more prevalent than at Sajik Stadium in Busan.
The great Korean social drinking event is Chi-Maek (치맥), which means to drink beer while eating chicken. And in Busan, Korea’s second largest city and southern coastal city, a Lotte Giants game is the culmination of all that makes Korean social life great: social drinking, Korean-style food, and nore-bang (노래방), which literally means “singing room.” (Korea’s baseball teams, like Japan’ as well, are named after sponsors, and not cities. Lotte, a massive Korean-Japanese conglomerate, joins companies like Samsung and LG for indefinite naming rights.)
The scene at Sajik Stadium is nothing short of extraordinary. A baseball experience in the U.S. or Japan cannot rival it. The stadium, with the looming hills and mountains of Busan perched around the stadium, combine with the song that each player in the line-up has for when they are at bat. And the chant or the team song start from the first pitch until the hit, the out, the home run. Sometimes songs are modeled after Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” but with Lotte players name inserted instead. The songs work in a catchy, rolling, crowd chant. The team song is an elegant ode to the serene beaches of Busan and the city’s and team’s mascot, the seagull. And for Busan’s baseball (야구) fans of the last decade, this stadium’s glory, this team, will always be linked to it’s greatest modern player, Lee Dae-ho (이대호).
A tall, chubby, home run hitter. A graduate of Busan’s prestigious Busan High School (부산교육청), where I last taught English in Korea. A comically slow runner but as an explosive hitter as the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO – 한국야구 위원회) has had in recent memory. He once hit a home run in 9 consecutive games, a world baseball record. (I was a witness to the first four.) From 2001-2011, Lee Dae-ho was on the tip of the tongue of every taxi driver, colleague, and soju drinking man in Busan.
The Lotte cheerleaders cheer on the crowd in Busan that was considered the “Chicago Cubs” of Asia by former MLB and Japanese manager great Bobby Valentine. (The teams can only consist of two non-Korean players on the active roster, usually former MLB players who had a limited role in that league). Lotte is always at or near the top of the highest attendance rankings. Last year, the KBO recording nearly 7 million fans in attendance, up 5 million from 10 years ago.
Towards the end of the game, you will caught up in an awkward yet inviting 7th inning stretch tradition in Busan. Between the 7th and 8th innings, Busan fans around the stadium pass around thousands of yellow Lotte Giants plastic bags. The idea is to blow them up and tie the handles to trap the air inside. Once that is done, you wrap the ends around you ears so you have an inflated, orange plastic bag on your head. (In true [female] Korea fashion, the women tend to do Minnie Mouse ears.)
Although the Giants are the loveable losers, having gone more than two decades without a title, the atmosphere is legendary around the peninsula. The fried chicken and beer floods the stadiums. Out of coolers comes everything from a seemingly endless number of beers or sneaked in soju or pizza or pig’s feet (족발) or dried squid. You inevitably make friends with the elderly around you, get lost in the chants, and swept out with the crowd into the tree-lined streets of Sajik, Busan, the ears turned deaf from the chants, the energy still permeating through.