Baseball team faces fight for medals and public support

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Baseball team faces fight for medals and public support

The national baseball team trains at Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul on July 18. [YONHAP]

The national baseball team trains at Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul on July 18. [YONHAP]

 
Football and baseball are the two most popular sports in Korea. The KBO and K League are the most-watched domestic leagues and it comes as no surprise that the two team sports make for some of the most-watched events at international competitions like the Olympics and the Asian Games.
 
Both teams have also brought Korea a fair amount of glory. The U-23 football team won gold at the last two Asian Games and bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, while the baseball team have won gold at five Asian Games, including the last three, and are the current reigning Olympic champions.
 
Yet despite that success, the two teams often enjoy very different public images.
 
After the 2018 Asian Games, the gold-medal-winning football team returned to Korea as heroes, greeted at Incheon International Airport by thousands of fans gathered to celebrate their victory. The equally victorious baseball team walked out of Incheon Airport to be met with silence.
 
The controversy in 2018 was over the inclusion of two players — Oh Ji-hwan of the LG Twins and Park Hae-min of the Samsung Lions — who didn't stand out as obvious picks for the squad and appeared to have been chosen only to ensure that the earned a military exemption with the gold medal.
 
This year, the baseball team are back in the hot seat.
 
While there are plenty of concerns over how well the young football team is going to do at the Games, the baseball team is already caught up in a controversy that has not only angered fans, but also the general public as well.
 
The revelation over the last couple of weeks that a number of baseball players playing for the NC Dinos, Kiwoom Heroes and Hanwha Eagles had, in some cases, implicitly broken social distancing rules has impacted not only the KBO, but also the national baseball team as well. 
 
A week of KBO games were postponed after the outbreak stemming from four NC Dinos players — all of whom have now been suspended for the season — and two players were forced to withdraw from the national baseball team. 
 
That leaves the national team, a group of players with no experience playing together, with just a couple of weeks to learn to work and play together while doing so under the cloud of the ongoing scandal and the increased scrutiny that comes with it. Players training at Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul are doing so while wearing masks at all times, and are reportedly trying to keep their distance from each other, making bonding as a team difficult.
 
"The atmosphere is a bit chaotic," Kang Min-ho, the second oldest player on the team, told the JoongAng Ilbo. "The players are quiet and awkward. Everyone seems to be trying to avoid getting together often in one room. Everyone is very sensitive."
 
The national team have just over a week before their opening game of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, against Israel on July 29. During that time they have two warm-up games scheduled, against a team of the KBO's best young players on July 23 and against the Kiwoom Heroes on July 25, before flying to Japan on July 26.
 
The national baseball team now head to Tokyo with two goals: To win an Olympic gold medal and to win back the support of the Korean public.

BY JIM BULLEY [jim.bulley@joongang.co.kr]
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