Take me out to the fuzzy yellow ball game

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Take me out to the fuzzy yellow ball game

They’re not the best team in the league. Far from it. By the top of the fourth inning, the 100-Game, 100-Loss Submarines are being crushed, 11-2, by the Apgujeong HSBC Sundays.
“It’s no surprise that we’re being beaten,” concedes the Submarines’ captain, Hwang Bo-hyun, during this recent game in Gangnam, southern Seoul. “As our team name indicates, we never win.”
Mr. Hwang’s ragtag squad is one of about 20 neighborhood baseball teams in Seoul that plays with a fuzzy, yellow tennis ball rather than the standard white rawhide hardball.
“The rules of this game are identical to those of baseball,” explains Mr. Hwang. “The only difference is that we use another kind of ball.”
In truth, there are a few other differences. Tennis-ball teams, for instance, compete on rock-strewn school playgrounds, not actual diamonds. And they also don’t pay much attention to batting lineups.
This laid-back sport made its way onto the peninsula about three years ago when some weekend athletes wanted to play baseball the way they often did as youngsters: with smaller, softer, rubbery balls.
“The purpose of the game is to have fun,” says Mr. Hwang, standing on the sidelines. “We’re not trying to be professionals.”
Good thing. A few moments later, a batter on Mr. Hwang’s team takes a monstrous cut and misses. The ball plunks into the catcher’s mitt.
“Strike three, you're out!” shouts an umpire, who actually plays for the Sundays.
A frown crosses the face of the Submarines’ coach, Baek Shin-young.
“I’m the coach because I’m the eldest,” says Mr. Baek, who is 30. “Most of my teammates are in their early or mid 20s.” The coach says that despite the preponderance of youth on the field, this easygoing diversion has no age barrier. “There’s little risk of serious injury because we use a tennis ball. There’s even a team made up of elementary students and they’re awesome.”
Now the Submarines are in the field, with coach Baek playing left. A batter for the Sundays stands at the plate. The pitcher lifts his right leg and flings the tennis ball with what appears to be great force. The batter makes contact and the ball spins high over the infield.
Several Submarine players rush toward the expected landing spot. When the ball falls between two gloves and then rolls past a third, the batter races into third base.
Obviously, in this league of their own, some teams are not quite up to Major League standards.
“We should have drunk soju yesterday,” a Submarine player says.
“We should have drunk it today,” cracks another sub for the Subs.
Choi Hui-hwan, a Submarine pitcher who is not playing this day, works to hold back his laughter. “This is my first real day here and although we may be losing, I’m having a great time,” he says.
Mr. Choi, at 25, is a three-year veteran of a recreational hardball club in Seoul. “In hardball, we were dead serious about our games,” he says.
“Our team had a personal trainer, uniforms and we competed on an genuine ball field,” Mr. Choi adds. “This may not be real baseball, but because we take things a lot less solemnly, I enjoy this a lot more.”
Despite their best intentions, the Submarines lose their showdown with the Sundays. The damage?
“After the fourth inning,” says a Submarine, looking not at all disconsolate, “nobody really keeps track of the score.”


by Lee Ho-jeong

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