Written by Keeran Murphy ETA’09-11
In 2009, the Lotte Giants led the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) in attendance. Averaging 20,597 spectators per home game, ahead of the Doosan Bears at 15,731, they nearly doubled the KBO average of 11,138. Although dwarfed by a powerhouse Major League Baseball (MLB) team like the New York Yankees, who average nearly 46,000 per game, the Lotte Giants came very close to the Cincinnati Reds, at 21,579 per game. In short, Busan is a baseball city with fan-support more fervent than anywhere else on the Korean peninsula.
I had heard that Busanites were crazy about baseball before moving here in August 2009, and I was eager to experience the “great American pastime” on foreign soil, not because of a love of the sport itself, but with such a reputation, attending a game seemed essential to familiarizing myself with the culture, customs, and mores of the city which was to be my new home.
My history with the sport of baseball is short and rather uninteresting. Growing up in the American Midwest, participating in Little League might as well have been a requisite extra-curricular activity. But I was smaller than my classmates in elementary school, and I preferred running around in the backyard, throwing stones, and playing with sticks to organized team sports. Little league baseball players tend to fall into two categories: those who buy batting gloves and those who spend most of their time picking grass in the outfield. I fell into the latter. After two seasons of batting last and hoping that no fly balls came my way, my baseball career ended, and it was with indifference, if at all, that I regarded the sport thereafter.
When I arrived in Busan, though, I quickly realized that baseball would be an inexorable part of my daily life. My homestay was located in Sajik-dong, on a hill overlooking Sajik Stadium, home of the infamous Lotte Giants. From my room on the fifteenth floor of my host family’s apartment building, I could just barely see over the crest of the illuminated bowl to the fans sitting in the center outfield seats. Lying in bed with the window open, I could hear the cheering and make accurate predictions concerning the action on the field. My homestay father was excited to hear about my interest in attending a game one evening, and he quickly secured tickets for a game the following week against the Woori Heroes.
The stadium was packed to full capacity and the crowd was wonderfully raucous. After finding seats, my host father flagged down a vendor and scored us two cans of beer and some butter-fried squid — essentially head and tentacles in a paper bag. One of the crowd’s favorite players was the Mexican, Karim Garcia. For any serious baseball fans, this is the same Karim Garcia who played for ten different MLB teams, from the Dodgers to the Orioles, from 1995 to 2004. And according to his Wikipedia page, in 2004, he and teammate Shane Spencer “were involved in a parking lot encounter with a pizza deliveryman, but no charges were filed.” He’s a stocky galoot with a significantly substandard batting average, but one of the league’s homerun leaders. When he makes contact the ball soars; he’s your run-of-the-mill slugger, a Gashouse Gorilla (see: Looney Tunes, “Baseball Bugs,” 1946). The crowd’s love for Garcia seems to stem from both his Mexican background and his ability to crush home runs. When he steps up to the plate, the crowd chants, “Ga-reu-shi-uh” to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah.
There were some similarities between the Korean and American baseball stadium experience. The crowd did “the wave.” There was also a “Kiss Cam.” And between innings, a man proposed to his girlfriend — all shown on the big screen behind center field. But unlike American baseball teams, the Lotte Giants do not have batboys; they have batgirls. They wear white skirts, orange tank tops, pink baseball caps, and pigtails. And there is no seventh-inning stretch, but there is a sixth.
There are cheerleaders too. They are on a stage set up in the right field seats, and the majority of the time they do cutesy coordinated dance numbers. They are dressed similarly to the batgirls: white skirts and orange tops, but for some reason in the eighth inning they change into super short jean shorts and tee shirts that say “DIVA.” The cheerleaders alternate on stage with a more literal “cheer-leader” — a man in a Giants uniform and white gloves (and some kind of white, flowy, cape-like outer garment, which is quickly jettisoned after the first inning). Capering and gamboling across the stage, gesticulating in sharp, precise motions, he looks like he’s trying to give semaphore code sans flags, or trying to direct an airplane on a tarmac. He’s always either shouting cheers into a microphone or blowing sharply into a whistle. He’s darn good at his job, and really gets the crowd going. Through the entire game there’s not a quiet moment, and the riotous cheering almost never stops.
This was, for me, the best part of the game. The whole crowd is electric, and they have a different chant for every single player, incanted when he steps up to bat. Also, the fans bring newspapers to the game and, through a system of tearing and twisting, make their own pom-poms, which are not so much shaken as they are whipped in unison toward the field. In the eighth inning, I was puzzled as to why stadium personnel were walking around tossing bright orange plastic bags into the crowd. At first I thought it was a sort of “pick up your own trash” policy, but the crowd seemed too eager. The bags are tied so that they’re full of air, and the two loop handles are wrapped around the ears, with the bright orange plastic sac of air on top of the head. Gazing out upon the capacity crowd, it looks like a swarm of bright orange jellyfish has descended upon the stadium.
One of the most difficult aspects of Korean baseball for me, was, at first, the team names. Note that the two mentioned above (and all teams in the KBO) bear no reference to their city or location. But instead of bearing the name of the city in which they are located, KBO teams are identified by the corporations that own them. Sure, the Cincinnati Reds play in the Great American Ballpark, but they’re still the Cincinnati Reds. I loved the excitement of the fans, but for a while, I couldn’t stop thinking about these corporate team names. Lotte is a megalithic Asian conglomerate named after the elusive love interest in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther that operates businesses in a wide array of industries, including candy manufacturing, beverages, tourism, hotels, theme parks, fast food, retail, financial services, heavy chemicals, electronics, IT, construction, publishing, entertainment, and more. Anyone who has spent even a little time in Korea should be familiar with the ubiquitous name. And many of the Giants’ cheers consist of one word chanted repeatedly: “Lotte.” I don’t know if there is really a true equivalent to Lotte in America, but imagine a crowd at a baseball stadium cheering for their team by screaming “General Electric.” It would be something like that. Even more bizarre to imagine are the cheers that must have come at Woori Heroes home games, when you consider that Woori is the nationalized tobacco company (they are now the Nexen Heroes). But despite this unabashedly postmodern integration of corporate ownership and team, I’ve never seen a more energetic and supportive crowd.
Here, advertising, the engine that makes sport on such a massive spectatorial level possible, is not just posted on a jersey, as is the case in English Premier League soccer. An at-home viewer isn’t just reminded “this broadcast is brought to you by…” In the KBO, advertising is truly incorporated into the very fabric of the sport itself. And not only is the viewer or crowd beaten over the head with this advertising, but when the stadium crowd chants for its team, it is the crowd/consumer itself that wields the beating stick. For KBO and Lotte Giants fans, though, this seems not to matter. On one level, there is something scary about this — the unwitting manipulation of the individual and its subjugation to the corporate machine, and the assimilation of man-as-cog into that machine under the convenient ruse of “sport.” But for true Giants fans, it seems, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and that which we call a business conglomerate might as well be a baseball team. At some point while watching the game, chewing on some squid and drinking Hite with my host father, both of us wearing plastic bags on our heads, I realized that such trivialities don’t matter in praxis when weighed against the rapture and enthusiasm of the fans.
I’d never seen anything like it in America — the entire crowd, every single person, seemed to be cheering in a regular season match of little consequence. It was about so much more than baseball; it was like an extension of and a celebration of the city itself. Though the city’s name is absent from that of the team, the spirit of the crowd is pure, one hundred percent Busan. In America, the loudest communal cheering I ever heard was at a Yankees game, and consisted of expletives about the Boston Red Sox; at the time, the Yankees were playing the Orioles. I guess there’s something to be said for a good old-fashioned rivalry, but it’s much more satisfying to hear the unflagging win-or-lose support of fans who love their team because they love their city, because their team and their city are inextricable, no matter what the name may be.
Since the first Korean baseball game I attended with my host father, I’ve been hooked; I’ve been back to see the Lotte Giants play with fellow teachers, ETAs and Korean friends. I wear my Lee Dae Ho jersey with pride, I’ve learned the cheers and songs for all the players, and I’ve sang Hong Sung Heun’s so many times that I finally realized that it’s sung to the melody of the chorus of 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 hit “What’s Up?” I also know the exact timing of when to yell at the opposing team’s pitcher after he tries to throw a man out at first base.
Korea has changed me. Now, I love baseball and I love the Lotte Giants.