Don’t blame the heat for baseball’s lackluster appealBaseball fans can be crueler than a mosquito bite between your toes. They reserve the right to hurl insult after insult at everyone and anyone. They throw the occasional beer bottle, and lately, in line with the Zeitgeist, plaster opponents’ Web sites with triple-X-rated language. But that’s OK; it’s precisely what fans are supposed to do, because in these dog days of summer, it’s about the only thing Korean baseball fans have going for them.
Without these die-hard fans, there wouldn’t be much left to say about our baseball that’s good. The legion of loyal fans is shrinking, slowly but surely. Korean baseball has been on the decline since 1995. From a peak of 5.4 million fans strolling to the ballparks then, that number has been chopped in half as of last year. This year, the outlook is even more grim: Only 1.5 million fans, give or take a few, have gone to a game so far. That’s a decrease of roughly 7 percent compared to last season at this time.
The cheerleaders are still there, and beer is now allowed to flow inside the stadium, so we know what’s not missing. At this point, what is missing is a star of the caliber of the departed Lee Seung-yeop, a fan magnet if there ever was one. Until this season got going, the consensus was that Hyundai’s Shim Jeong-su was the likely heir to Lee, since Shim entertained fans last year in a tit-for-tat home-run race with Lee that he lost by only three.
That prediction has quickly fallen to pieces, as Shim’s average is hovering around .246, with a mere 11 home runs so far. Shim hit 46 balls for a round trip two seasons ago before hitting 53 last year.
Nevertheless, a couple of nagging injuries to his knee and back, and maybe a lack of stimulus to jumpstart his motor, have left Shim a non-factor for fans hungry for another real hero. Now Shim is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2004 season, and it’s no secret that he wants to play abroad. Park Myeong-hwan, starting pitcher for the Doosan Bears, who leads the league in strikeouts, has a 10-1 record and a 2.56 ERA with a shot at winning in all three categories for the first time since Seon Dong-yeol. Yet Park, too, has said that he wants to play abroad, preferably in Japan.
I always think that a player who has a chance to prove his stuff abroad at a higher level should go for it. To argue that he should stay for the sake of resuscitating the game’s dwindling popularity at home is pure nonsense.
That’s the job of the eight baseball teams and the Korea Baseball Organization. It should be written loud and clear in their job descriptions. And yet not one baseball team in this country is making any money. On the contrary, the teams lose billions of won each year, and nobody’s sounding an alarm.
Alternatives such as auto racing and no-holds-barred fighting have entered the entertainment scene, making it clear that for baseball to recapture its glory, it needs to do some serious research. A five-day workweek should greatly improve baseball’s chances of recovery, but I’ve yet to see any concrete planning. As one IMG official told me, there simply isn’t any serious sports marketing in our country. Wait another 20 years, and there might be nothing left to market.
by Brian Lee