Kim Ra-kyung is striking out baseball's gender stereotypes
The biggest and most popular sport in Korea is baseball, but while most Koreans can name a KBO team and a player or two, women's baseball and the female players that dominate the sport are completely overlooked.
When it comes to female baseball players, they don't come much bigger than Kim Ra-kyung. Now just 21 years old, Kim first made a name for herself back in 2015 when she became the youngest person ever to join Korea's national women's baseball team at 15. Adding to that accolade, Kim was also the first female baseball player ever to play in Korea's competitive university league.
Kim burst on to the scene at the 2016 Women’s Baseball World Cup (WBWC), a biennial competition where 12 teams from around the world participate. Korea finished sixth at the event, with two wins against Pakistan and Cuba, but it was Kim's performance on the mound and her 110-kilometers-per-hour (68-miles-per-hour) fastballs that made headlines.
Kim continued to dominate at the 2018 WBSC Women’s Baseball World Cup in Florida. Korea finished 10th overall, with Kim picking up the team's sole group stage win. During Korea’s opening round game against the Netherlands, Kim gave up just two unearned runs in three and two thirds of an inning to lead the team to a 9-8 win.
Kim currently attends Seoul National University but has taken a leave of absence to play baseball in Japan.
Kim sat down with the JoongAng Ilbo in February to discuss her career so far and her efforts to establish women’s baseball as a professional sport.
Q. How did you start playing baseball?
My brother, Kim Byeong-geun, who is seven years older than I am, played baseball so I was very familiar with the ballpark growing up. I started playing baseball in fifth grade. I feel like baseball found me, rather than me choosing to play it.
Q. Unlike other ball games, baseball doesn't have women's varsity teams or a university league in Korea.
I used to think that women’s baseball is so unpopular because not many girls were interested in baseball. But actually, I don't think that's true. Girls doubt that they can play baseball because of the lack of opportunities, and end up giving up because they can’t be a professional baseball player. That is why I formed the Just Do Baseball team to try and revitalize women's baseball.
Q. You were the first female player to hit a home run in Korea's Little League in 2015. How did that feel?
I might not be the first. I heard there were other female players even in my brother's time that played very well. They just might have been forgotten because they were forced to switch to other sports like softball as the environment was worse back then.
I hit my first home run when I was 15, during a practice match. My first official home run came two years later. The ball flew 75 to 80 meters (245 to 260 feet). I kept that ball and I still have it with me.
Q. What are your strengths as a pitcher?
I throw a good curveball. I can throw it with a good spin and I have good control. The fastest official speed of my fastball is 118 kilometers per hour and my average speed is about 113 to 115 kilometers per hour. I have my ball speed and now I plan to focus on technique and ball control. But of course the dream is to reach a ball speed of 120 kilometers per hour in my baseball career.
Q. What is the state of women's baseball in Korea?
There are more than 1,000 female baseball players. That number is almost comparable to that of women's volleyball, which is the most popular sport these days. There are 49 teams registered nationwide, and about four social league competitions held in a year.
Q. What about in other countries?
There are professional leagues in Australia and Japan. In Japan, women’s baseball is not that different from men’s in that there are teams in elementary school, middle school, high school and university that lead to a career in the business teams. There are also four professional teams.
I was preparing to join a business team in Japan myself, but that process has been delayed by Covid-19. Players there earn a salary working in the morning then practice and compete in the afternoon and on weekends.
Q. You often get asked why you play baseball and not softball. How does that feel?
That question breaks my heart. Softball and baseball can seem similar but are completely different sports. People think softball is a women's sport because they think we are less muscular than men and softball uses a softer ball than baseball, but that is no different from saying that I should switch to a completely different sport.
Even if I don’t have the same muscles or physical strength, I think I can enjoy baseball with other strengths that I can develop. We just want to play and enjoy baseball as it is.
Q. Do you think that Korea will ever make room for professional female baseball players?
Of course. But it will take time. Right now, baseball is seen as the national sport in Korea, but I'm not sure if it deserves to be called the national sport if only half of the population can play. Forty-eight percent of baseball fans are women, meaning there is a huge baseball fandom there. I think the KBO and the Korea Baseball Association should feel like this is something they desperately need to address.
Q. What specifically are the things we need to do to revitalize women's baseball?
I just hope opportunities will start to open up, to at least create an environment where we can enjoy baseball. It would be great to start off with a women’s baseball field where women can try the sport out without any pressure.
BY JUNG YOUNG-JAE AND YUN SO-HYANG [email@example.com]