A league of their own
The tension escalated as An Hyang-mi, 26, stepped up to the plate. With runners at second and third, Ms. An swung at the first pitch she faced and the ball flew as if it had wings, climbing high over second base and landing deep in the outfield. Her two teammates were able to cross home plate without breaking a sweat. It was just the bottom of the third and the team that Ms. An coaches, Sunrise, was already ten runs ahead of Tteodda Ball, their opponents.
Ms. An, who makes her living at her mother’s convenience store, is more than a baseball player, coach and fan. She is also the first and only woman to have been an official baseball player in Korea. As a student of Duksoo High School in Seoul she took the pitcher’s mound in 1999, during an otherwise all-male high school baseball tournament. But this was not the start of a revolution in sports ― the appearance was her first and last in an official game.
Today she is content that an official women’s baseball association, something she has dreamt about for a long time, has finally been launched in Korea. For many years Ms. An stood alone, but today she has many colleagues who share her love of baseball. There are now 16 female baseball teams in Korea with over 200 players from all over the country.
Baseball has been Ms. An’s life. She grew up with three brothers but, surprisingly, she was the only person in her family who was a baseball fan. During her childhood she rarely played with a bat or ball. Her father was a judo master and he never took her to a baseball game.
Ms. An played tennis before she took up baseball. She did not pick up a bat until she was in the fifth grade. Her father suggested that she join the little league where her little brother played so she could take care of her younger sibling. The little brother no longer plays baseball but his sister has become a minor legend.
Ms. An could have used her physical advantages to carve out an easier way of life by taking up other popular sports. “Because of my baseball experience in elementary school there were several people trying to scout me when I was about to move up to middle school,” she said. “A girls soccer team coach called our house everyday for a month and there was also a golf instructor who promised my dad that he would turn me into a professional and send me to compete in the United States after high school.”
The scouting continued even after she entered high school and played for the national high school women’s softball team. “Back then, being surrounded by girls for the first time was an entirely different experience for me,” Ms. An said. “It was fun being with girls, but softball didn’t have the edge and thrill of baseball. And the field is smaller than a baseball field, which I found frustrating”
Ms. An became determined to make her mark in the sport that has made millionaires of its top stars.
“In high school, even in December, I would stand in the outfield in a puffy winter coat catching balls,” Ms. An said. “I would eat chocolate bars to beat the bitter cold. Today, when I think about it, I wonder why I chose such a difficult life.”
When she got to high school she found training with the boys wasn’t easy. It’s not that they discriminated against her, she was just falling behind in terms of physical prowess. “Boys grow up faster than girls,” Ms An said. “My nose would bleed every day from the heavy training we did.”
The only time she was discriminated against was in the first year of high school. “The coach was this old-fashioned man who had been newly recruited. The coach that scouted me had left the school by the time I began to play. I think the new coach simply hated me and for that reason the intensity of our training was especially hard.” Ms. An said everyone on the team had to run a punishing 60 laps of the school field every day, and that was just the start. “Even my former baseball buddies from high school still suspect that the coach gave them a harder time because of me.”
This sadistic coach was fired because of personal and professional problems. By the time she began her second year in high school, Ms. An had a new coach, and it was this man who put her on the pitcher’s mound in 1999. “The coach told me to throw one ball and at first I thought he was joking but he wasn’t.” Ms. An said the first time she stood on the mound she was extremely nervous and all she could see were the batter, the umpire and the catcher. “Everything else was blocked out including the audience and the reporters. In that split second all sorts of thoughts were rushing through my brain. I was thinking whether I should throw a fastball or a slower and more controlled pitch. I just couldn’t make a decision.” She finally threw the ball and was ready to step off the mound. “Even the coach was ready to pull me out but the umpire said a pitcher should only be pulled after dealing with one player, not just one ball.”
With her next pitch she struck the batter and he was given first base. That was her last official game. “Even today I still wish that my duel with the batter conculded with him getting a hit,” she said.
Ms. An says her high school coach now coaches the batter she hit on her debut. “Isn’t that a weird coincidence?” she said, with a broad smile on her face.
After graduating from high school she tried to join the Korean professional baseball league. “Some sports reporters gave me information about which teams were holding tryouts,” Ms. An recalled. But she faced many obstacles. One professional team lied to her, saying their tryouts had already ended. Ms. An managed to get one trail, with a professional team based in Chungcheong province. “I traveled all the way to Daejeon for the tryout and they told me I could join the team,” Ms. An said. But she didn’t stay long. The manager gave her a job as an administrator, not as a player. She was young and all she wanted to do was play ball.
Ms. An gave up trying to play in Korea and decided to move to the United States to play for a women’s baseball team. However, problems with her visa forced her to abandon that dream. Instead, she went to Japan. For two years she played for a female team based in Tokyo. However, her dream remained the same. She wanted to start a league for women in Korea. Like the women in the famous Tom Hanks film, she wanted female players to have “a league of their own.” She started her first move while still in Tokyo.
In October of 2003 she asked her brother to create a Web site that could help her form a female baseball team. The Web site was called yeoincheonha or “a world of women.” She involved an old friend who also happened to be one of her first fans. They later went on to create a baseball team. However, the way the team turned out was not what Ms. An wanted. “It was more like friendly meetings with a lot of drinking. I wanted a team that worked out hard and wanted the opportunity to play in a world tournament for female baseball teams,” Ms. An said.
Ms. An and her friend parted company over the issue. Ms. An renamed her baseball team Sunrise in November last year, because her friend had the copyright on the name used by the previous team.
“All I want is to play ball,” Ms. An said. “In the last couple of years, since returning from Japan, there has been too much politics. All I want is to play baseball at the highest possible level without becoming involved in political disputes.”
Ms. An says her father never opposed her playing baseball since it was his suggestion that she pick up a bat. But her mother and grandmother have continuously opposed her lifestyle.
“They wonder why I would give up a life of being pretty and pick up something as physically exhausting and difficult as sports. They still haven’t given up hope that I will become a normal girl.”
Ms. An said her love of the game will continue even when she is married and have children. “Even when I am an ajumma I will still be dreaming of playing in a women’s world series of baseball.”
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]