Our wind-up to the first pitchOn March 27, 1982, professional baseball made its debut on the peninsula at Dongdaemun Stadium. Due to the lack of players, only four games per week were played, compared to the 25 games nowadays.
The first year of the Korean baseball league gave birth to some records that are still waiting to be broken. Park Cheol-sun, a pitcher for the OB Bears at the time, established a record of 22 consecutive wins. Baek In-cheon, who played for the MBC Blue Dragons, now the LG Twins, earned a batting average of .412.
Originally starting out with six teams ― Samsung Lions, Haitai Tigers, Lotte Giants, Sammi Superstars (now the Hyundai Unicorns), MBC Blue Dragons (now the LG Twins) and the OB Bears (now the Doosan Bears) ― the Korea Baseball Organization has added two more teams since its foundation. The Bingrae Eagles, now the Hanwha Eagles, joined the league in March 1986, and the newest team, the SK Wyverns, was added to the organization in March 2000.
Today, the game has a single league, with each team playing 133 games, or 19 games with every other team. Each game can have four extra innings, and unlike the U.S. league, there’s tying in baseball.
After the pennant race, the top four teams go into the postseason with the third and fourth team matching up in the first round of the playoffs in a best-of-three playoff series.
The winner advances to the second round of the playoffs facing the second-place team of the regular season in a best-of-five playoff series.
The Korea Series is the championship of Korean baseball in which the final winner of the playoffs and the first place team of the regular season slug it out in a best-of-seven series.
The 2004 regular season is from April 4 to Sept. 24, which gives you plenty of time to see some of the top players in action this season.
Lotte Giants, Busan
Having wallowed at the bottom of the league for the last three years, the Giants have brought in a new coach in Yang Sang-mun, who has coached at Lotte and LG in the past. With the help of newly acquired players, he vows to revive the team.
Outfielder Jeong Su-geun (.321, 32 RBI), brought in from the Doosan Bears, will team up with Mario Encarnacion (.289, 45 RBI, 13 HR) and Roberto Perez (.314, 31 RBI, 9 HR) to improve a team batting average of .256.
Lee Sang-mok from the Hanwha Eagles, who had a 3.55 ERA and 15-7 record there, will give the Giants some lift in the pitching department. Skipper Yang does not expect his team to advance to the Korea Series but in an interview hinted that his goal for this season would be to make the playoffs.
Samsung Lions, Daegu
The Lions have lost many key players during the offseason: Lee Seung-yeop, who hit a record 55 home runs last season, left for the Lotte Chiba Marines in Japan, Ma Hae-young went to the Kia Tigers and Tilson Britto now wears a SK Wyverns uniform. The team brought in Park Jong-ho from the Unicorns, but there is only so much he can do. The Lions also signed Kevin Hodges from the Japanese Yakult Swallows, who posted a 17-8 record in 2002 but went 5-9 for them last season.
Hanwha Eagles, Daejon
The departure of pitcher Lee Sang-mok (3.55 ERA, 15-7) to the Giants has left a hole in the Eagles’ rotation that won’t be easy to fill. Jeong Min-cheol, 32, (4.00 ERA, 11-10) and Song Jin-woo, 38, (3.12 ERA, 9-7), the core of the pitching staff, are respected veterans, but the overall age of the Eagles pitchers is a concern, as was evident toward the end of last season.
The Eagles tried to address their pitching problem with the addition of Kwon Jun-heon from the Hyundai Unicorns, who had an 8-4 record and saved nine games last season.
How well he plugs the hole left by Lee will determine whether the Eagles can do better than their fifth-place finish last season. The performance of their aging pitchers is the key to a successful run.
Doosan Bears, Seoul
The losses of Jeong Su-geun and Shim Jae-hak are a blow to the overall strength of the Bears. The Bears will try to build on a pitching rotation in which two foreigners carry the burden of being the number one and two guy. Mark Kiefer (3.79 ERA, 8-7) and southpaw Gary Rath (3.87 ERA, 16-8), are the glue of this team. The Bears must get the best out of Park Myeong-hwan (5.19 ERA, 5-10), No Gyeong-eun (4.12 ERA, 3-1) and closer Koo Ja-un (4.17 ERA, 18 saves) to make it into the playoffs.
The loss of Kim Jin-woo (3.45 ERA, 11-5) to a knee injury in spring training, which has taken out the pitcher for the rest of the season, was definitely a huge one for the club.
Nevertheless, the remaining rotation, which includes Choi Sang-deok (3.56 ERA, 11-5) and Daniel Rios (3.82 ERA, 10-13), is still solid.
How Lee Dae-jin, who has been slated to fill in the rotation, will adjust to handling the starting pitcher’s job will be key to a successful season. Lee, who suffered a shoulder injury in 2000, has never been the same pitcher who had consistently racked up double-digit wins. He tried briefly to become a hitter in 2002 and started to pitch again last season until he was sidelined again in May for the remainder of the season.
On the offense, right outfielder Lee Jong-beom will continue to provide leadership and production (.341, 110 RBI). Adding Ma Hae-young (.291, 38 HR , 90 RBI) has made the team into a strong playoff contender.
LG Twins, Seoul
The LG Twins, who conducted their spring training in Japan with the Junichi Dragons, found out that Lee Byeong-gyu (.279, 20 RBI), who has been hitting below .300 for the past two years due to nagging injuries, has been revived. If he comes back to his old form, he will be a welcome addition to a team that had the lowest batting average last season (.249).
How well a young rotation that features Lee Seung-ho (3.19 ERA, 11-11), Kim Kwang-sam (4.46 ERA, 7-9) and Lee Dong-hyeon (4.01 ERA, 4-10) matures will be the key to how far the Twins will go.
SK Wyverns, Incheon
Last season, the Wyverns made headlines when they advanced to the Korean Series after clawing through two rounds of the playoffs. The offseason has been especially helpful as SK added left-handed closer Lee Sang-hun (3.09 ERA, 1-0, 9 saves) from the LG Twins, adding another star closer to their roster. With right-handed closer Cho Woong-cheon, who posted a 1.97 ERA and 30 saves last season, the Wyverns have the best closing duo in Korean baseball.
On offense, Lee Jin-young, (.328, 80 RBI, 17 HR) who was the only player in the league to hit above .300 last season, will again be the focus. Mr. Lee is expected to be part of a cleanup trio with infielder Lee Ho-jun (.290, 86 RBI, 36 HR) and infielder Tilson Britto (.255, 59 RBI, 20 HR), who is coming back to SK after three years with the Samsung Lions.
Much of the cast that clinched the Korean Series last season is intact, making another run at the title a very likely possibility. The pitching rotation is anchored by Jeong Min-tae (3.31 ERA, 17-2) and Kim Su-kyeong (4.63 ERA, 10-9), one of the better one-two pitching combinations in the league.
Although the departure of infielder Park Jong-ho, who batted a .293 and batted in 90 runs last season, to the Lions is a negative, overall the team hasn’t lost much of its firepower as it still features outfielder Shim Jeong-su, who came in second to Lee Seung-yeop last season in home runs, with 53.
Shim, a free agent after this season, is a front-runner for the home run record now that last season’s home run king is playing in Japan for the Chiba Lotte Marines.
If you want to root for your favorite team...
Games on weekdays and Saturdays are played at 6:30 p.m.
Games on Sundays and public holidays are held at 2 p.m.
(An exception is the period from July 20 to August 15, when games on Sundays and public holidays will be played at 5 p.m.)
Ticket prices for the professional Korean baseball league vary from team to team, ranging from 1,000 won to 15,000 won.
Tickets can be bought over the phone (02-1588-7890) or the Internet (www.ticketlink.co.kr).
by Brian Lee