A cheer that sticks out

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A cheer that sticks out

In Game 1 of Major League Baseball's World Series, Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' celebrated slugger, stepped up to the plate. In one quick moment, a fastball whizzed past Bonds and strike one was called.

Soon, seemingly all of Edison Field in Anaheim, California, the site of the game, was engulfed by the deafening din of more than 44,000 Anaheim Angels fans smacking together two, bright-red, 65-centimeter long vinyl clubs.

Meet the ThunderStix. When a pair is banged together, there's a teng-teng-teng sound. When 20,000 pairs are banged together, it's a boom-boom-boom.

During the Angels' playoff games earlier this month, ThunderStix became a hot item. Some marketing folks think they're the brightest bits of pop culture in the United States since Cabbage Patch dolls.

A few years ago, to show spirit, some chubby guy painted his body red and blue and did a belly dance on a dugout roof at baseball games. Today, that same guy is waving and dueling with this wacky new noisemaker.

After last weekend's first two games of the World Series in Anaheim, reporters said fans in Southern California were far more interested in pounding their ThunderStix than watching Barry Bonds pound a home run.

While the popular noisemaker may be the latest and loudest buzz in the United States, where baseball is the national pastime, in South Korea, the ThunderStix, under a different name, has been around for more than a decade.

Known here as "stick balloons," the inflated noisemakers date back to October 1991 and the Korean Series ?the local equivalent to the World Series in the United States. That year, the Binggrae Eagles of Daejeon, now the Hanwha Eagles, faced the Haitai Tigers of Gwangju, now the Kia Tigers.

During the event, the stick balloon made its debut when Eagles fans started to bang the strange tubes and root on the Eagles. Thousands of the new-fangled, orange stick balloons had been distributed to Eagles fans prior the game.

Eleven years ago, when the two teams played in Jamsil Stadium in Seoul, the first batter who noticed -- or heard -- a stick balloon in the stands likely had his eyes on his team's new cheerleaders, who wore miniskirts.

"At the time. we were looking for a new distinctive cheering material that would really excite the fans and enliven the game," says Joo Jae-guen, then marketing director of the Eagles. Although Mr. Joo did not invent the noisemaker, he was the first person to adopt the stick balloon to a sporting event -- anywhere in the world.

"Before 1991, we used megaphones to cheer at baseball games in Korea," says Mr. Joo. "But the megaphone was too expensive and only a few purchased it."

Mr. Joo adds even the use of cheerleaders was rare before 1991. "Then suddenly we had stroke of luck," he says.

In August of '91, a marketing staffer of a small Seoul company called Kisung Industrial Co., which specialized in making rocket balloons for kids, dropped by the Seoul office of the Binggrae Eagles and presented Mr. Joo two long, pumpkin-colored sticks that he said could make noise for Eagles spectators. The marketing fellow had tried to sell these novelty items to several other Korean baseball teams that summer, but had been turned away at every place, occasionally with laughter.

Without a second thought, Mr. Joo decided to use the crazy looking stick balloons for the upcoming Korean Series. "They would be the hidden card we would hold to cheer on our team."

Unfortunately for Binggrae and its fans, the Haitai Tigers went home with the Korean Series trophy, pounding the Eagles in four consecutive games. Curiously, the noisemakers seemed to have distracted the Binggrae players more than they did the Tigers.

The stick balloons, however, didn't take off instantly after that Korean Series. According to an LG Twins official, the items did not gain wide recognition among Korean baseball fans until 1994.

Today, the stick balloon is used at almost every major sporting event in Korea.

The brains behind this noisemaker was Hwang Duk-hyung, now 56. As a young man, Mr. Hwang says he was always interested in inventing things. In high school in Busan he tried to create a charcoal briquet that didn't emit toxic gases when lighted.

"Back in those days, a lot of houses were burning briquets in the winter to keep warm," says Mr. Hwang. "And a lot of people were dying in their sleep from the fumes."

Mr. Hwang says his idea for an enhanced briquet came to him in a dream. He dreamed of mixing human excrement with the briquet and the result would be free from poisonous fumes. "We didn't have a powerful experimental environment when I was in high school in Busan, so I had to personally volunteer to do the experiment."

Mr. Hwang locked himself in a confined room in his house and then lighted his odious charcoal briquet. The young inventor's brothers were watching the experiment through a window.

"They were on stand-by just in case something went wrong," says Mr. Hwang.

Something went very wrong. The experiment failed miserably. Mr. Hwang quickly fainted from the fumes and the smell.

His brothers rushed in to the makeshift experimental lab and took him outside immediately. "Our parents were furious, but those were the memorable days," says Mr. Hwang with chuckle.

The ThunderStix idea didn't pop out of the inventor's head early in life. Mr. Hwang gained initial success by selling food in the streets after graduating from high school. He moved on to exporting disposable gloves, and after a decade expanded his business to manufacturing cushions and rugs, which were exported to the United States.

When he was in his early 40s he came up with stick balloons -- almost by accident. Mr. Hwang said he read a news article about an angry mob at a Korean baseball game that threw empty soju bottles and other dangerous materials onto the field. During one incident, several fans and a player were injured.

"Suddenly it dawned on me that I wanted to create a cheering item which people could actually use to enjoy the game in unison and still not harm anyone."

The solution he came up with was stick balloons, now of course known widely as ThunderStix at Edison Field in Anaheim, and CheerStix at other places.

In April 1988, Mr. Hwang formed the Kisung Industrial Co. and began to develop stick balloons. "The stick balloon was actually a 1.2 meter-long balloon rocket that kids could throw around," says Mr. Hwang. "The balloon would fly 10 meters horizontally and kids really enjoyed it." Later in 1988, Mr. Hwang, shipped his rocket balloons, the forerunner to the stick balloons, to United States as a children's toy. The problem was, the toy balloon rockets kept deflating, and soon Mr. Hwang ceased exporting them. But he later sold them to baseball teams as a cheering device. In 1995, Mr. Hwang began exporting the cheering sticks to the United States -- still known as stick balloons. However, the sticks never caught on. In 1997, Jim Lundberg, an American, started a small business in Beijing that manufactured the cheering sticks. He called the item CheerStix. Mr. Lundberg had lived for several years in Seoul and had seen the items at Korean baseball games. Lundberg in 1997 sent the Nike company in the United States 25,000 CheerStix for a World Cup qualifying match, the cheering sticks first appearance in the United States. Two years later, Chicago-based Vonco Products Inc., came out with the ThunderStix. Today, Lundberg's CheerStix and Vonco's ThunderStix dominate the market.

Kisung Industrial holds the Korean patent for the sticks. Mr. Hwang says he applied for a U.S. patent for his stick balloon seven years ago, but was rejected. Patent officials said a similar product already existed.

According to Mr. Hwang's company, sales of stick balloons in Korea vary depending on the baseball team and the stadium. "During the week, sales are low," said a Kisung Industrial official. "But at major baseball games, such as the Korean Series, we sell about 3,000 to 5,000 pairs of the sticks."

Another Korean company, Nespo, also manufactures the stick balloons. Kisung won a lawsuit against Nespo, but the latter was permitted to sell the sticks informally. Today, Kisung Industrial makes the sticks for four of Korea's eight professional baseball teams, while Nespo handles the other four teams.

At baseball games it's not just the fans who are enjoying the clattering of stick balloons. Lee Wang-don of the Doosan Bears promotions department said that Tyrone Woods, a Bears star firstbaseman from the United States, once picked up a stick balloon lying on the field and waved it in the air, which caused fans to cheer even louder. When Woods came to the plate this season, Bears fans waved their sticks toward the outfield fence to encourage Woods to hit a home run. He is, after all, the Barry Bonds of Korean baseball.

"Woods seems to really enjoy this ritual," Mr. Lee says.

Hwang Duk-hyung says the popularity of his creation gives him enormous pride. "I'm tickled that I am the originator. What's more, I hope the popularity of my stick balloon will motivate other inventors."

And for Barry Bonds, he better be careful this week in the World Series. An Angels fan just might figure out a way to switch Bonds's lucky bat with a ThunderStix.

by Lee Ho-jeong

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