KBO clubs score with ceremonial first pitch
The Korea Baseball Organization sets attendance records every month. Last Wednesday (Memorial Day), the league announced that total season attendance had surpassed the three-million mark in just 190 games, the fastest time that milestone was reached in the league’s history. At that rate, many speculate that this season’s attendance will easily surpass the current record of seven million.
While the star players do their job on the field, club officials work to draw fans into the stadium by organizing and promoting entertainment and special events beyond the game itself.
One of the special events that has become an attraction in its own right is the ceremonial first pitch. The topic of who threw the pitch and whether it was hard or soft, a ball or strike makes headlines. Fans cheer and jeer and evaluate the performance of first pitch performers online as well.
Once largely the purview of politicians and of little more than passing interest to fans, the ceremonial first has become an integral part of KBO culture .
“Events like the ceremonial opening pitch can’t be seen often in other professional sports, because none of them holds games every day like baseball,” MBC baseball commentator Heo Koo-youn told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “I think our culture of the ceremonial first pitch is more entertaining compared to other countries and the quality of the opening pitch has grown a lot better.”
Bureaucrats to ordinary people
The precise origin of the ceremonial first pitch is unclear, but several sources credit Okuma Shigenobu, a former Japanese prime minster and founder of Waseda University, as the first non-player to throw an opening pitch. That eventful moment occurred at a friendly game between the Reach All American and Waseda teams in 1908.
In Major League Baseball, the honor goes to former U.S. President William Howard Taft, who took the mound at National Park on opening day for the Washington Senators in 1910. Since then, U.S. presidents have been featured as ceremonial first-pitchers at season-opening games, All-Star Games and the World Series.
The KBO is no different when it comes to political pitchers.
Former President Chun Doo Hwan got the honor on March 27, 1982, at Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium when the league had its first game between the Samsung Lions and MBC Blue Dragon. Since then, mayors, sports ministers and other politicians have made their pitches, cementing the image that the tradition was the exclusive property of public officials.
“That was the time, that we had authoritarianism in baseball as well,” Heo said.
Actress Lee Kyung-jin was the first entertainer to throw an opening pitch in the KBO All-Star Game in 1982. The event started to become less about bureaucracy and more about entertainment. In the 1990s, entertainers started to rush to the ballparks.
After baseball’s popularity skyrocketed, in part due to international competitions such as the Asian Games, Olympics and World Baseball Classic, fan preferences began to change and clubs started to become more aggresive in their marketing.
“I think in the 2000s, fans started to dislike politicians doing opening pitches,” Heo said. “The clubs had to meet fan’s expectations and that’s why they brought more familiar and welcoming faces to them.”
While most opening pitchers are celebrities, clubs also started to use ordinary fans and add more flavor.
The first non-celebrity opening pitch was in 1989 when the OB Bears (now the Doosan Bears) invited their first fan membership holder to the mound. Ordinary fans participating in first pitches became more common in the 2000s along with marketing and public relation opportunities.
“I think today’s opening pitch event benefits both fans and clubs,” said Ha Il-sung, former KBO secretary general who now works as a commentator for KBSN Sports. “For fans, it’s part of the entertainment to find out who will pitch and how well they can pitch. Those selected to make opening pitches will have the memory of pitching in front of 30,000 fans and professional ballplayers. It’s a good marketing tool.”
Good publicity for both sides
Even though fans continue to make opening-pitch appearances, the ceremony these days is dominated by celebrities.
“We did invite a lot of ordinary fans to the mound in the past few seasons, but there were also criticisms that the atmosphere of the ballpark becomes too solemn rather than having a cheerful start,” said Kim Jae-woong from the Nexen Heroes’ public relations team.
The relationship between baseball clubs and celebrities is slightly different than in the past. According to Kim, ball clubs used to have to invite celebrities to appear, but now stars often volunteer for the clubs they support.
In addition, some say that in the past clubs paid celebrities to pitch, but that rarely happens anymore. Instead of cash, clubs offer signed uniforms, autographed baseballs and VIP seats.
And while the biggest celebrities appear occasionally, most appearances are by K-pop performers.
“I think it’s easy to invite them because it’s a win-win situation for both the club and entertainers,” Kim said. “We usually cast idol groups on condition that they perform a few song between innings and that way they can have their own publicity and our club can entertain the fans.”
The celebrities are eager to feature on the mound as the KBO popularity rises.
The recent study conducted by SMS Research & Consulting shows that the KBO does have some media exposure power. For instance, Paldo, who signed an official sponsorship deal with the KBO reportedly worth 6 billion won ($5.1 million), had already benefited from 17.5 billion won worth of media exposure in April, according to the study.
People in the entertainment industry already knew that KBO marketing sells. Although entertainment agencies don’t necessarily send their clients to baseball parks only for publicity, they don’t deny that it offers a good opportunity.
“We see it as a positive stage since Koreans really love baseball,” said Woo Young-seung, chief director at Pledis Entertainment, which manages K-pop artists like Son Dambi and After School. “There’s lot of media coverage and many fans are at the stadium as well.”
But for celebrities to get more attention from fans, the quality of opening pitch matters. Female celebrities, in particular, can be in the center of the spotlight right away if they show impressive pitches in a professional athlete-like form rather than “throwing the ball like a girl.”
Actress Hong Su-ah started this phenomenon in 2005 when she pitched for the Doosan Bears at Jamsil Baseball Stadium. Back then, Hong didn’t just pitch the ball. She traded signs with the catcher and threw a fastball with a powerful form that surprised everyone. The performance earned the 26-year-old the nickname “Hongdro” from MLB star pitcher Pedro Martinez.
These days female celebrities frequently practice or get lessons from professional pitchers before going on the mound. Instead of wearing skirts and high heels, they sport team jerseys and athletic shoes, which are an essential part of a successful pitch. Some even emluate the form of their favorite pitchers.
Who gets the fancy cast?
On June 3 at Jamsil Baseball Stadium, Michael Sandel, better known as the author of the best seller “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” threw the opening pitch for the LG Twins and Hanwha Eagles game.
The Twins said the Harvard University professor approached the club because of his interest in Korean baseball.
Other international celebrities who have appeared include actress Zhang Ziyi, actor Tony Jaa, illusionist David Copperfield, model Jessica Gomes and Nikki Hilton.
Most of them, however, have appeared at games in Seoul. The Heroes said their schedule for the ceremonial opening pitch is booked until August.
For clubs outside of the capital metropolitan area, the situation is different.
“For baseball clubs based in regional areas, it’s hard to bring in celebrities,” Ha said. “Who will travel a long way down just to deliver one pitch?”
The clubs in other regions admitted that it is a tough task compared to Seoul-based clubs to invite such celebrities unless they are scheduled to be in the area or have sponsorship deals with mother companies.
However, these clubs come out with some creative ideas of their own. Instead of relying on star power, they often bring non-celebrity opening pitch performers who have interesting stories and are highly regarded by the club or the community. That can make the opening pitch ceremony more dramatic and meaningful for local fans.
Pundits say the culture of the ceremonial opening pitch is still evolving and has surpassed the U.S. and Japanese versions.
“Our culture of the ceremonial opening pitch is unique and becoming more stylish,” Ha said. “I can say it’s definitely the factor that makes our baseball more interesting.”
By Joo Kyung-don [firstname.lastname@example.org]