Take me out to the CheongryonggiEvery baseball player gets his start somewhere. For major leaguers in the United States, it’s usually Little League, an enterprise aimed at 9-to-12-year-olds.
In Korea, it’s Cheongryonggi, an annual high school tournament, which this week enters its 58th year.
Late each summer, teams from around the globe show up at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the Little League World Championships. In Cheongryonggi, 27 teams representing each region of the peninsula are encamped at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Stadium until Thursday, when a champion will be crowned.
In the past, several Major League players from Korea participated in Korea’s oldest official high school baseball tournament. Choi Hee-seop (first baseman, Chicago Cubs) and Bong Jung-keun (pitcher, Atlanta Braves) each competed in 1997, the year Bong won the tournament’s MVP award.
Others on the alumni list are Park Chan-ho (pitcher, Texas Rangers), Kim Byung-hyun (pitcher, Boston Red Sox) and Seo Jae-weong (pitcher, New York Mets).
Before the start of the professional Korean baseball league in 1981, this high school baseball tournament was a chief sports attraction for citizens of Seoul.
Actually, four high school baseball tournaments take place this month at Dongdaemun -- the Cheongryonggi, the Bonghwanggi, the Hwanggeumsajagi and the Daetongryeongbae. The Cheongryonggi is by far , the most prestigious.
Baek In-cheon, 60, the manager of the Lotte Giants, in the Korean league, remembers playing in the 1960 Cheongryonggi. Baek, a catcher, who batted fourth for his alma mater Kyeong Dong High School, in Seoul, still gets an adrenaline rush when he thinks about the tournament.
“The feeling was like, ‘Wow I am finally playing at the Cheongryonggi!’ says Baek. “It was just an honor to be there, you know? The moment I stepped out onto the field I felt my heart in my throat.”
Baek won the MVP award during that tournament 43 years ago, a piece of hardware he displays prominently in his home. His team that year captured the tournament’s winning trophy.
Nowadays, the only people that even care to follow the tournament, such as high schools coaches or players who aren’t participating, generally watch it on television. This year, MBC-TV is broadcasting several of the games in the tournament live.
“Back then,” says Baek, “everybody, whether playing or not, wanted to watch the games -- in person. Not only family members and alumni, but everyone. There was little else to watch and stands were full from day one.”
Since the start of professional baseball in Korea, the popularity of the Cheongryonggi has declined. Fans still come to the tournament, but just a lot fewer of them. From the 1960s through the 1970s Dongdaemun Stadium, which seats 22,000 and has a capacity for 30,000 spectators, was regularly sold out for the Cheongryonggi.
On opening day Wednesday, with perhaps 900 people in attendance, Seoul’s Jangchung High School faced Seoul’s Hanseo High School in Game 1, and Bukil High School, in Cheonan, Gyeonggi province, took on Seoul’s Juyob High School in Game 2.
Before the first inning, players lined up shoulder to shoulder across the field. On the command of an umpire, team members bowed to each other, signaling the game to begin.
In the stands behind third base a couple of hundred Juyob High students, holding CheerStix, began rhythmically thumping the noisemaking devices to music coming from massive speakers.
Bukil High had arrived at Dongdaemun with almost no cheerleading support except a handful of parents who, seated behind home plate, had made the three-hour trip from home.
Wearing sunglasses, Lee Yoon-hui tries to get comfortable as she watches her son, a Bukil pitcher, while nervously munching on dried squid.
When the first pitch is called a strike, Ms. Lee shakes her head and screams, “You call that a strike? What’s wrong with you?” Raising her hand, she lets out a large sigh and adds, “Oh well, we’re going to win anyway.”
Last year, Bukil clinched three of the four high school tournaments -- except the most important, the Cheongryeonggi. Thus, this year her hopes are high. Her son, Lee Kyeong-pyo, a sophomore wearing No. 25, is warming up on the sidelines. As he does, she gazes about the stadium. She notices the Juyob students have begun performing waves while that team’s cheerleaders frantically shake their pom-poms.
Some female students wearing the light blue colored school uniform from Juyob try to take pictures of the players while screaming out their names or numbers to get the player’s attention.
Ms. Lee smiles as she remembers the hoopla last year when her son’s high school drew similar support -- but only when it advanced in the Bonghwanggi tournament.
“It’s still the first round,” she says. “Once we get to the semifinals, we’ll have cheerleaders and much more,” says Ms. Lee.
Behind home plate another group of spectators sit, but they’re not fans. Some of these five or six men are scribbling on notepads between pitches. Some are pointing hand-held radar guns at the pitcher, checking the speed of a delivery.
An Byung-hwan, 46, a supervisor of scouts for the Los Angeles Dodgers, checks the figure on his speed gun, which indicates that the Juyob pitcher has just thrown a 69 miles per hour (111 kilometers per hour) pitch. An makes a disapproving grunt. “Hmmm. This year isn’t that great. Probably next year,” he says.
An has come to this year’s Cheongreonggi to watch Kim Su-hwa, a pitcher for Hyo Cheon High School in Suncheon, Jeolla province, who is said to throw in the 90s.
An, who coached the Seoul High School baseball team until last year, says that the intensity level of the Cheongyronggi tournament has dropped a lot but he still finds the tournament useful for finding talented players.
“There is always a hidden gem somewhere and that’s why I keep coming,” An says.
But the atmosphere has changed, he adds. “Now it’s more like a picnic. In the old days, the atmosphere was just so intense with people jam packed into the stadium from the beginning of the preliminary rounds.”
In a seat reserved for participating teams, Bang Seong-kuk, 16, a freshman from Busan High School in Gyeongsang province, studies the action closely and writes down his findings on a report card. His team is scheduled to play two days later, and he is determined to help it any way he can.
Does it bother the freshman that not many people are watching?
“Some schools never make it here,” he says. “But right now I am here. Years from now I can talk about being at the Cheongryonggi.”
by Brian Lee