Take me out to the yagujang

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Take me out to the yagujang


It is two hours before the first pitch and already fans are gathering around Jamsil Stadium buying, not soda, but soju from vendors who scatter the street corner near the Olympic stadium. Boxes of the alcoholic beverage are sold from icy metal buckets, which also contain frozen bottles of water and 250 milliliter cans of carbonated drinks. From the moment you walk out of exit No. 5 of the Sports Complex subway station, you see vendors who have set empty soju boxes on the ground to use as tables. They sit on wicker mats and serve tteok (rice cakes), gimbap (rice wrapped in seaweed), hard-boiled eggs and sundae (sausages...sort of) from their makeshift kitchens. Old men in slippers and middle-aged women, or ajuma, in big-brimmed visors are here to peddle ballpark chow -- before and after the game.

Welcome to the Korean version of tailgating.

Batter up

Before 1982, baseball in Korea was strictly for amateurs. Since then the Korean Baseball Organization has grown from a six-team professional league into a singular baseball culture, forming, arguably, the most popular national sport, particularly in Seoul.

All of this is, of course, PWC, or pre-World Cup.

Today, eight teams around the peninsula compete in a season that lasts from April to October (this year until November due to the Asian Games). Two teams call Seoul home -- the Doosan Bears, formerly the OB Bears, and the LG Twins, formerly MBC-TV's team. Hometown fans of all ages band together to root, root, root for the conglomerate-owned team. Whether it is for the Samsung Lions, the Hyundai Unicorns or the SK Wyverns (mythical, winged dragons), at baseball games Koreans cheer like, well, the Red Devils.

"You wonder where the Devils got it," a young fan says, pointing to the flock of air-tube beaters led by a male cheer master. The cheers sound similar too. It's not "Dae-Han-Min-Guk," but, in this case, "mu-jeok-L-G" -- invincible Lucky Goldstar.

The rooters section themselves, building up to something big. In a cluster of frenzied, unified fans, they follow a chant begun by a uniformed cheer master wearing laced motorcycle boots and white-cloth gloves. For the sixth, not seventh, inning stretch, female contestants are pulled out of the crowd by the cheer master for such contests as Who-can-open-her-eyes-the-widest. Really. As shown on the Jumbotron, the screen above the centerfield bleachers, a ruler is placed against the faces of various young women to measure how much they can expand their peepers. Silly? Definitely, but hey, the owner of the biggest eyes wins a shirt. Freebies are given to other fans at random, also displayed on the Jumbotron, fans who are asked to perform such tasks as: kiss your date, shake your rump, act like a sex-starved maniac.

Don't wanna perform? Then no shirt.

Finally, a bat babe, not a bat boy, delivers hardballs to the umpire in a flower decorated basket between innings. Time to get serious.

The World Cup is over!

Cheering sections along the first and third base lines are filled. The remainder of the stadium's seats are mostly empty. Where the heck is everybody?

Since the World Cup, kids' rally caps have been collecting dust, forsaken for their "Be the Reds" T-shirts. With the K-League re-emerging, soccer is getting much of the attention of sports fans in Korea. No longer cheering the sacrifice fly, Koreans are cheering free kicks. Even on nights when there are no soccer games, even on this night when the LG Twins are facing the Doosan Bears in a Seoul-city rivalry, Koreans' minds are on the game Guus Hiddink brought them.

Some say that the fans will be back, that it is custom to follow a sport that has been successful and that baseball will be back in the hearts of many, as it was once more popular than soccer here.

"I was a bigger LG Twins fan a while back," Kim Dong-kwan says. LG last won a championship in 1994, a season when there was no World Series in the United States. "Now, I am a Yoo Ji-yeon fan," he says, referring to the shortstop for LG.

Mr. Kim, who was on a date with his wife, says his job kept him away from the stadium for a long time. He said that when he and his wife have a child, he will make sure to bring the family out for an evening at the ballpark, a night at the yagujang.

"That's what you do," Mr. Kim says. "You bring your family to baseball games. Everyone enjoys it."

His wife, You Me-hee, is enjoying herself, cheering for the Twins despite being a Kia Tigers fan. "Cheering is a stress reliever," she says.

A Korean girl behind the couple asks anyone who will listen, "Woods?" -- except it comes out Oooods -- Tiger Woods?

Some Koreans don't know the difference between baseball and golf. It is Tyrone Woods, a three-time KBO All-Star from Florida, and a man with biceps three times larger than normal. Woods says he understands that fans that supported the national soccer team left vacant seats in the stadiums. He is certain though that they'll be back. "K-League soccer won't have the popularity that baseball has had in this country."

Woods, 33 next month, has been in the KBO since 1998, longer than any foreigner in the league. Last season he was MVP of the KBO All-Star Game, the playoffs and the Korean Series, leading the Doosan Bears to their third championship.

"I always wanted to be a big name," says Woods, who spent 10 years in Major League Baseball's minors league. "I've loved it here. The past couple of seasons, it has become really competitive."

Who's on first?

There is a rule in Korean baseball: Only three foreign players allowed on a team. It seems fair. You wouldn't want your opponent having eight dinger-hitting Tyrone Woodses and one Park Chan-ho. With the rule, this is Korean baseball, not another form of AAA for the U.S. big leagues. The Dominican player Manny Martinez likes it this way. A left fielder for the LG Twins, Martinez has been on the team for a year. He likes the culture; the side-arm pitching is something he has gotten used to. Martinez, 31, enjoys being a rarity here. He doesn't always understand the coach and hardly ever looks toward third base for signs. "I have an interpreter for meetings," Martinez says. "Like most of the foreigners in the league, I've only learned the swear words." Manny is here to hit -- and have some laughs.

This night the Dominican is off. He goes 1-4, caught looking three times and drops a ball in left center. Sshang! -- Damn! Not many laughs.

Attending this game are U.S. soldiers with a Dominican connection: Milton Rodriguez, Marcelo Polanco and David Ortiz, all here to watch Martinez. "He called us and asked us where we've been, why we hadn't been to a game in a while," Polanco says. "So, we had to come."

"He looks up and sees us," Rodriguez says, "and it is just like he's back in the Dominican, or the States, anyway." Martinez played three years in the show -- for the Phillies, Pirates, Mariners and Expos, before coming to Korea.

He's happy here, and would rather be a Korean League starter than in AAA or in the Mexican League. The money is about the same ($100,000 a season), but at least here he's playing for a meaningful championship. "I want to help my team win it all," Martinez says. "That's why I came here, to play the game and win a championship. If I win it all I'm going home happy."

Martinez left the Major Leagues in 1999 when he heard that foreigners like Woods were playing ball in Korea, Japan and Taiwan, and having fun doing it. "I wanted that excitement back. And I try to bring excitement to the game here."

Back from the bigs

One of Martinez's teammates, Lee Sang-hoon, recently returned this season after a stint with the Boston Red Sox. Pitching in Boston in 2001, Lee, 30, is back as a Twins reliever. "We don't talk about Major League Baseball much," Martinez says. "We're here, you know? This is where we play, this is what we do."

Mr. Lee doesn't talk much at all, not to outsiders anyway. Maybe that he wasn't a success in the Majors, with a 3.09 ERA, pitching in just nine games, 11 and 2/3 innings for one season, the southpaw didn't get to show his gas. Or maybe it is that he hasn't been well-liked here, shunned by All-Star voters, yet picked by the Western team's manager in his fifth All-Star game and first since returning from Boston

In a game before the All Star break, he showed what he did twice for the BoSox, he gave up a ninth-inning 'tater to loose the game. "After a game like that, he wouldn't be much of an interview, even if you did manage to get him in front of you," says Na-yoon Taek, Kendall in the clubhouse, the Twins' interpreter.

Mr. Taek found the job on the Internet last season after graduating from California Sate-Sacramento in 2001. He started last July and returned this season. "For a job like this you have to love baseball. It's more than interpreting."

'Give me an L ... a G'

For the past eight seasons Hong Kyoung-sun has been the cheer master for the LG Twins. It's a full-time job for him as he works for the LG basketball team as well. Hong, 32, graduated from Dankook with a degree in physical education theory. While he never played baseball, he's one of the biggest fans. Rallying the troops who sit in the section in front of him, he claps his hands, covered in white gloves, and stomps laced boots, on a stage five rows up from the foul line. With a microphone, and two drummers, he's ready to get a chant started. Fans follow his motions and the drum's beat with air tubes, which they wave and bang like 3-foot-long sausages.

For much of the game he is on stage himself, making up cheers about players, demanding home runs, even from a player who has hit only one all season. His followers repeat his chants, banging their air tubes, calling the player's name. The cheering goes on and on; silence is seldom part of the game. Cheerleaders enter the scene every couple of innings to dance and help get things going. Four of the attractive female cheerleaders, in their early 20s, are from Event You, a doumi, or helper-girl, business. The doumi are one more item on the so-called concession list -- dried squid, Whoppers, potato chips, chicks in halter tops.

"I use to have to protect the girls from drunken fans," says Mr. Hong, who met his wife cheering. "Not anymore." Fans have stopped harassing and Mr. Hong married a doumi who was cheering for the opposing team.

Mr. Hong says 30 percent of the crowd participation comes from his cheering section. It seems like more at tonight's game.

"I know guys who only show up for the cheerleaders," Woods says. "I think it's great that you can get this kind of fan support even when you're losing. In the States they yell at you, calling you names. Here it's love."

by Carson K Smith

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