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Baseball 야구 in Korea is not only a pastime, but a way of life, a social event. Koreans take the Korean Baseball League (KBL) and their players seriously. So it was a national pride and celebration when Korea defeated Japan, a serious rival, in a thrilling 9th inning comeback at the Tokyo Dome–which you can watch here–in the semifinals of the Premier 12 Championships tournament, and then went on to defeat the United States 8-0 in the finals.*
Their national team and rival with Japan can stop Koreans, who work extremely long hours in tough corporate environments, to watch their national team. Baseball, dominated by the North American Major League Baseball (MLB), has had a growing presence of Korean players. These players transition to the league usually later in their careers (25-30+) after their Korean team agrees to negotiate with MLB teams, which starts with a multi-million dollar bidding war between MLB and KBL teams for the right to negotiate with the player. This was highlighted recently by the Minnesota Twins $12.85 million dollar bid to the rights for Korean superstar hitter and reigning KBL MVP Park Byung-ho 박병호. Remember, that is just the price they pay to negotiate. That is more than double what the Pittsburgh Pirates paid for the rights to Kang Jung-ho, who they signed afterwards.
Baseball in Korea starts much like football, with junior leagues, typically in big city high schools from Seoul to Busan to Daejeon. In fact, when I was teaching at the prestigious Busan High School 부산교육청, the bottom roster of every class of roughly 35 had four to five names in bold. Those were the baseball players who practiced all day throughout high school, essentially attending tutoring lessons and only taking tests, not visiting classes.
But what is interesting about this off-season, which concluded in the USA earlier this month, is the record number of Korean players who are about to transition to the MLB, and therefore become instant national heroes. One, a local hero in Busan after playing for the Lotte Giants, and an alumnus of my former school, is Lee Dae-ho 이대호, already a national hero from the Korean team. Lee Dae-ho left the Korean league after the 2011 season and went on to incredible success in Japan, including winning the Japan League title and postseason MVP award. Lee Dae-ho, who was the hero this past weekend at the Tokyo Dome, is a free agent and expected to look test the MLB interest. He also went to the same elementary school–which also has competitive teams as highlighted by South Koreans win at the Little League World Series in 2014–and high school as the MLB’s current top Korean hitter and national hero, Choo Shin-soo 추신수. (Side point: Korea also unveiled their first domed stadium.)
Typically, Korean players don’t transition such big numbers in success to the MLB, but Kang played above expectations last year for Pittsburgh. The first Korean player to go the MLB, was Korean national sports hero and legend, Park Chan-ho 박찬호, who played from 1994-2010, and then returned to play a season in Japan and Korea. he is the all-time leading Asian pitcher in wins in MLB history, and was an all-star in 2001.
Another current MLB star, Hyun-jin Ryu류현진, is a star for the Los Angeles Dodgers, in a city with a large Korean diaspora. In the 2001 World Series, Korean “submarine-style pitcher” Byung-Hyun Kim 김병현, who played from 1999-2007, became on the wrong side of news for giving up two late-game home runs against the New York Yankees, nearly becoming the face of one of the worst playoff disasters, until his team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, won the World Series in the final game of the series.
There are plenty more of Korean players heading to the MLB in the very near future, which will make Koreans proud and create new national heroes, bringing attention to the KBL and the plethora of talent on the relatively small peninsula.
*(The Premier 12 Championship tournament is a professional baseball tournament between 12 nations involving the best national players not on active Major League baseball rosters. Baseballs World Cup, the World Baseball Classic, founded in 2005, takes place every four years, with Korea playing well in each tournament, including a heartbreaking loss to Japan in the finals in 2009. The Premier 12 was made as a national tournement in between the WBC, which is every four years.)
The future of Korean baseball abroad looks bright. Here is a look at that entire 2014 Little World Series victory over the USA (Illinois) in August 2014. (And why not practice your Korean with typical Korean broadcasting.)