[Viewpoint] Korean pro baseball marks 30 years

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[Viewpoint] Korean pro baseball marks 30 years

The first professional baseball game in Korea was played on March 27, 1982 between MBC and Samsung at the now-demolished Dongdaemun Stadium - currently the site of Dongdaemun History and Culture Park.

That day in 1982 was memorable for many reasons, though former President Chun Doo-hwan throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to MBC catcher Yu Seung-an was a sign that baseball had truly arrived in Korea.

And so we celebrate the 30th year of Korean professional baseball, which has remained one of the most popular sports in Korea since its debut.

But the sport hasn’t been without its trials and tribulations. The professional baseball league has, at times, reflected the regional antagonism so prevalent in Korea.

Tensions were especially high when the MBC Blue Dragons and Haitai Tigers advanced to the 1983 Korean Series, the national championship. Newspapers and televisions obviously called the matchup “a battle between dragon and tiger.”

When the Gwangju-based Haitai and the Daegu-based Samsung advanced to the 1986 Korean Series, fans cursed sports commentators for making predictions. After Samsung lost the series, fans in Daegu were so upset that they threw beer bottles at Haitai players and set the team bus on fire.

The Korea Baseball Organization began with six professional teams that attracted 1.4 million fans the first year. Thirty years later, there are eight teams - with a ninth waiting in the wings - and total attendance for the 2011 season is expected to exceed 6 million.

Korean baseball has made great strides in both quality and quantity. The culture of the game has changed drastically with both the cheer squad and fans putting regionalism aside to simply enjoy the sport.

A rookie from one region may join a professional club of another and become the star of the franchise. What was once a means to express regional antagonism is now playing the role of promoting regional integration and harmony.

Moreover, fans and supporters are no longer obsessed with the outcome of the game.

Koreans now appreciate individual players and the beauty and sophistication of the game. Families and couples may support different teams but enjoy the sport together.

Original and clever cheers show that the average age of baseball fans is dropping and as the professional baseball league grows older and more mature.

Korean athletes now display outstanding ability.

Ten years ago, we could not even imagine the Korean national team defeating the United States or Japan. Surprisingly, in 2006, Korea advanced to the semifinal of the World Baseball Classic, and made it to the final in 2009, when it lost in nail-biting fashion to Japan.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, the Korean team won nine consecutive games, defeating the likes of Japan, the United States and Cuba en route to a gold medal.

But the fields our baseball stars play on are too shabby, and the stadiums too humble for such passionate fans. Stadiums in Daegu, Gwangju and Daejeon were built more than 50 years ago, the stands are old and small, and playing fields pose injury risks.

As a former baseball player, I feel truly sorry for the fans and players. The KBO and the nine clubs need to make more aggressive investments.

The Korea Professional Baseball League should have bigger ideas and goals.

Above all, regional government agencies and local baseball teams have to work together to build ballparks that can accommodate more than 25,000 spectators. Gwangju has already started on its construction project and other cities with baseball teams need to follow.

The addition of a 10th team is also an urgent task.

When the new NCsoft baseball team joins the KBO in 2013, one team would not be able to play for three days while the other eight teams face off in three-game sets. In order to prevent this, a 10th team should be included immediately.

Moreover, we must start considering greater ambitions and combine the professional baseball leagues in Korea and Japan and create a single, more extensive league. The Korea Baseball Organization has promised that it would explore the possibility of a true World Series among the champions from Korea, Japan and the United States.

Korean professional baseball has made it a long way since President Chun threw out the ceremonial first pitch 30 years ago. The league had its difficulties and is now a huge success story, but there are high expectations for more.

Korean baseball should continue to grow and live up to fans’ expectations.

*The writer is a former secretary general of the Korea Baseball Organization.

By Ha Il-sung
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