Rehabbing Shim says stadiums are the KBO’s biggest problem

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Rehabbing Shim says stadiums are the KBO’s biggest problem

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COLOGNE, Germany ― Shim Chong-soo, a former All-Star with the Samsung Lions, is hoping to return in the fall after undergoing knee surgery on June 5 in Leverkusen, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) northeast from here. He is in the middle of rehabilitation, but said he is also enjoying his downtime, watching the World Cup matches closer to action than his teammates back home.
The JoongAng Ilbo sat down with the 31-year-old former 50-homer slugger, to gather his thoughts about the battle for popularity between soccer and baseball, the dilapidated Korea Baseball Organization stadiums and what baseball can do to reach the youth more.

Q. What are your thoughts having watched World Cups here?
A.I have difficulty walking, so I never got to attend games in stadiums. But I could feel the passion and enthusiasm from fans just from watching them on television. Just a few days after my surgery, I watched the Korean team’s practice at the stadium in Leverkusen [The Bay Arena]. I was surprised to see so many Korean fans in the stands, and then to see the sea of red in the game against Togo. It brought back the memories of the 2002 World Cup, and reminded me of the fans’ love for their national soccer team.

Why do you think the World Cup is so widely popular?
The World Cup has a long tradition, whereas the World Baseball Classic only began this spring. Plus, the fact that this year’s World Cup is being held in Europe, which is considered the birthplace of soccer, has only fueled the interest level. I also think that soccer is an honest sport, where rules are applied strictly and the violators of those rules are ejected. That certainly helps its popularity.

Do you feel that during World Cup years, baseball takes a backseat to soccer in terms of popularity?
I was disappointed that the Korean baseball league had to be suspended during the 2002 World Cup. But then again, when our national team reached the semifinals, I was really excited, as a fellow athlete and as a Korean citizen. Our family donned red t-shirts and painted our faces red to cheer on the team.

Does the surging popularity of soccer come at the expense of baseball?
Indeed, since the 2002 World Cup, the size of youth baseball in Korea has shrunk. Some elementary school teams have trouble fielding a nine-man squad. On the other hand, you see more and more kids choosing soccer, and the Korea Football Association has established a strong youth support program.
The fewer the kids playing baseball, the fewer the chances coaches will have in nurturing young players for next steps, and that will obviously affect the talent level of professional baseball down the road.

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It was only 11 years ago in 1995, that the attendance for the Korean Baseball Organization reached more 5 million. [That year, an all-time record of 5.4 million people went to ball games. Last season, the figure was 3.38 million, the largest since 1999.]
Back then, the Seoul rivals [of the LG Twins and then-OB Bears, predecessor of the Doosan Bears] played 16 games, and 15 were sold out. But the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s kept the crowds away from the game.
The biggest problem, though, is with the stadium management. The seats aren’t all that comfortable, the bathrooms are filthy and the parking space is always limited. Who would want to go?

What about players and teams? Could they have done things differently to stop the bleeding?
In 2003, when Lee Seung-yeop was gunning for the single season home run record [he set it at 56], he was a huge draw everywhere he went, including Suwon Stadium, which is often the least attended stadium every season. Baseball is a game of records. If we play hard and chase records, then people will come.
As for teams, I think they could do a better marketing job in trying to reach out to fans.

In cyberspace, there have been clashes between soccer fans and baseball fans claiming superiority of their sport. What do you think can be done to help them coexist?
For the sake of casual fans who enjoy both sports, fans of baseball and soccer should not be mutually exclusive.
I heard about cross promotion of games between [K-League soccer’s] FC Seoul and the LG Twins. That’s an excellent starting point. Also, on the exemption from the military service, fans shouldn’t have to fight over how soccer national team players only needed to reach the round of 16 to be exempted, while baseball players had to make the final four [of the World Baseball Classic] to get the same treatment. There should be more dialogues that could help reach solutions that can satisfy both sides.

Any final words to sports fans back in Korea?
I hope the fans’ outpouring of passion during the World Baseball Classic and the World Cup can translate into support for their respective local sports teams, be it baseball or soccer. I hope that sports games can become a good diversion for people, helping them get away from their stressful daily routines and just letting them have a good time at stadiums.

Shim said he is targeting some time around September and October for his return. He has only played in 12 games this season, and is eager to join his Lions teammates, the defending champs who are sitting in the first place.
“If our boys can reach the Korean Series again,” Shim said. “I will be there to contribute and make up for all the time I missed.”


by Jeong Young-jae
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