He keeps his eye on Korean baseballKorean baseball is experiencing a decline. Nine years ago, 5.4 million fans filled ballparks in Korea. Today, the number is about half that. None of the professional teams is turning a profit.
Even as more Koreans decide to skip the game and stay home, one foreigner is determined to save it.
Thomas St. John has been covering Korean baseball since 1996 as a freelancer for Baseball America and the Korea Times. He has also written the English guidebook for the Korean Baseball Organization since 1999.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, and a devoted St. Louis Cardinals fan, he came to Korea in 1993 as a senior from Southeast Missouri State University to study at Yonsei University as an exchange student.
He still vividly remembers how he got his first real taste of Korean baseball, which has stayed with him ever since.
“I loved the game and I was curious to see the Korean version of it. So I wrote a letter to the LG Twins, which have Seoul as their home, and asked if I could get some tickets.”
Kim In-yang, then the marketing manager of the Twins, says that he was struck by the unusual letter.
“I think it was the first request from a foreigner ever that I encountered. So I got him the tickets because I myself was curious to see this guy.” Mr. Kim left Korean baseball in 1996, and now he works for the Korean Basketball League.
After the game at Jamsil Stadium, where the LG Twins play, Mr. St. John was invited to have dinner with the players, an experience that had a big impact on him.
“I have seen big baseball stars in the States, and some of their egos were just way up there. Now, here I had players that were really down to earth,” Mr. St. John recalls.
He started to attend games regularly, and in 1996 started to write baseball stories for the Korea Times.
In 1999, he got more involved with the sport as he took an advisory role for the Korean Baseball Organization.
As he got closer to the game, he also began to see the flaws in it. On the sports’ waning popularity, the freelance writer has tried to suggest many things to officials at the Korean Baseball Organization but with little success.
“They are still resting on the laurels of the ’80s, when baseball was the only game in town,” he said. “But with players’ salary increasing and the attendance number going down, if they don’t take drastic measures, there won’t be much left to play for in the future.”
He argues that one of the reasons none of the eight professional baseball teams in Korea is making any money is because of the lack of quality baseball merchandise and the absence of a marketing strategy.
“Baseball cards do exist, but few fans, if any, are even aware of it,” he says.
At the end of last year, he suggested that Korean Baseball Organization officials and representatives of the professional teams should attend the annual winter meetings of the Major League Baseball teams in the United States. It would have given the Koreans a chance to attend an exclusive seminar by baseball industry experts such as Dan Migala, executive editor of Team Marketing Report, a sports-industry trade publication.
“All they had to do was get in a plane. I also had an agreement that the fee for the seminar would be waived. But it never happened,” he says, shaking his head.
He says his proposal letter never went beyond the Korean Baseball Organization official to whom he sent it. He had asked the official to forward the letter to the organization and the Korean teams. “It was very frustrating but I will try again this year,” says Mr. St. John.
He is also very blunt about his views on issues that have been covered by the local sports tabloids, which wield much power in shaping public opinion.
A good example is Samsung Lions slugger Lee Seung-yeop’s bid to play in the majors last year. The Los Angeles Dodgers were interested, but the player thought the two-year deal for $1.5 million annually was too low. At the time, the overall opinion among local media was that Mr. Lee’s talent was being underestimated by major league teams.
Mr. St. John takes a different view. “In my opinion, the offer was very fair, but Lee’s star status here made him his own prisoner.” He said the local media raised Mr. Lee’s expectations and that’s what influenced his decision to play in Japan.
Unlike the sports tabloids, his assessment of Korean baseball is not driven by nationalistic pride. “Overall, mid- to low triple A material, with two to three players who can play in the majors right away. That’s my take,” Mr. St. John says.
Although frustrated sometimes, he vows not to give up on his quest to restore Korean baseball’s fortunes. His efforts include writing a baseball column that is translated for Sports Seoul, a daily sports tabloid. He hopes that he can shape public opinion to help the sport.
On his right hand, Mr. St. John wears a championship ring from the Korean Series that he purchased in March 2000 and belonged to Song Jin-woo, a pitcher for the Hanwha Eagles. It’s also a symbol of his dedication to the sport, and one can only hope that this relationship turns out to be a happy one.
by Brian Lee