History hits a homerun at Incheon schools

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History hits a homerun at Incheon schools

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Kim Heon-sik smiles fondly as he takes the wooden bat off the rack in its glass display case at the Incheon High School showroom.
The bat is marked with an oval Louisville Slugger logo from the 1940s and was used by the school's baseball team in the '50s. Mr. Kim, who would have been a teenager around that time, strokes the bat with a touch of pride.
"It's amazing," says Kim, who heads an alumni sponsorship organization for the school team. "Even in 1930 there was an official baseball cheering squad that also helped to pay for the team. There isn't a town in Korea that is more knowledgeable or sophisticated when it comes to sports than Incheon."
Mr. Kim isn't the only Incheon resident who's infatuated with the game. The city has been playing ball longer than any other place in Korea. Residents have been perhaps overly enthusiastic, creating courageous but hapless teams like the Sammi Superstars, a team of underdog office workers from a steel mill. Reality was not kind to the Superstars, who lost nine of 10 games.
Officially, the history of Korean baseball started in 1905, when an American missionary named Philip Gillett established a YMCA team. But the game had already been played in Incheon six years earlier, mainly by Japanese residents in the port city. An excerpt from a Japanese student's diary at Incheon High School, dated February 3rd, 1899, referred to him playing a game of "western catch ball" at a square outside a temple in Incheon.
By 1938, after Korea had been brought under Japanese rule, players from the school went on to play at Koshien, the renowned annual national high school tournament in Japan. Kim Seon-woong (pictured above and left), a left fielder from the games, later became the team coach for Incheon High School.
But the idea that Korean baseball started at Incheon is supported by more than one boy's journal. The game had been popular in Japan long before 1905, and Incheon's role as a port city meant that traders and representatives from China, Japan, Britain and Russia had been settling around the town since 1883. By 1893, there were an estimated 2,500 Japanese residents living in Incheon, strongly suggesting the game was there long before Gillett arrived.
"It's a fact that Incheon was ahead of other cities in Korea when it comes to baseball," Kim says. "But it's a bitter feeling, because experts don't want to admit that the baseball was spread in Incheon by the Japanese population in Korea."
The town's love of the glove, however, is beyond argument. The three major high schools in the area - Jemulpo, Dongsan and Incheon - consistently win national tournaments, and Incheon has produced 18 pro players so far, eight pitchers and 10 fielders. (Incheon is tied with Sinil High, in Seoul, for the number of pro players.)
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Incheon High also has the nation's oldest senior high school baseball team, and arguably the nation's strongest.
The team has won 19 pennants in national high school tournaments since 1915, when the school set up a team to compete in a national competition hosted by a local railway company.
The team's modern history is not so exciting: after 1989 it had a 15-year slump. But in the 2004 season, the school shot back to the top, winning first place in the national Presidential Tournament. This year, it's sent eight players to the majors.
To celebrate both the victory and the centennial of Korean baseball, Incheon's top three high schools jointly published a book chronicling the history of baseball in the city, a step that has so far calmed the intense rivalry between the area’s schools.
"In most places, one's school comes first, then the sports team," said Yang Hu-seung, the head coach of Incheon High School's team. "Here, it's the other way around. Baseball comes first, then school. Once you get here, we make you play hard."
Yang, who graduated from the school, was a player during the "legend of 1979," when the school won four pennants in major national high school tournaments, a record-breaking score for a Korean high school team.
Victory is certainly sweet to Incheon players: at the final game of the Presidential Tournament last year, Yang called the players together and told them, "I don't need you to come in second place. Better to be last than to be second."
The team won. It was the team's first major national victory in 15 years, since it won a Gold Lions Award, another national high school tournament, in 1989.
The city also had more to cheer about last year, as Dongsan High also won the Luc Award, a national tournament sponsored by a newspaper. It was Dongsan's first major victory since 1989.
Incheon's passion for baseball is well-known. Merchants near Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium are rumored to line their pockets whenever Incheon plays there, because the team brings the largest crowd among any in the Korean professional league.
What's not a rumor is that sports reporters always cover Incheon High's first game of the season during the tournaments, making the game something of a sports news tradition.
Incheon High's comeback may appear miraculous, but Mr. Yang was under enormous pressure to produce results. The group of 500 alumni and hardcore ball fans that funds the team insisted on victory, and before Mr. Yang signed his four-year contract, he promised to resign if the team didn't recover its glory within the first few years. The caveat was that he wanted sufficient leeway to run the team the way he wanted.
"It's scary," he said. "You wouldn't expect the fans of a high school team to be so zealous. But I get overwhelmed at alumni dinners. They used to be happy when the team won a quarterfinal. Now that's a must. They need to see the team win the final, period."


by Park Soo-mee
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