I don’t actually really like baseball.
I don’t like to play it, and I don’t like to watch it. It’s an obscenely long game for really no reason, and there’s an obnoxious number of names for strategies and plays and methods which I don’t know and don’t care to learn. I get bored long before the ending, and whatever excitement I lull myself into generating dissipates long before the 7th inning stretch. People are intense about baseball, to a degree that makes me uncomfortable and suspicious. Periodically, creepily mustachioed players take lots and lots of steroids and get busted, and people become even more intense and unpleasant to deal with. Moreover, in Toronto, baseball games are stupid expensive, generally expecting you to shell out hundreds of dollars, or sit somewhere up in the nosebleeds section, where you’re technically across the street. The Jays are also not a particularly winning team. And should you make the mistake to possess human drives for sustenance, you need to prepare to donate your entire life savings for a single cup of warm, flat beer.
That said, baseball in Korea is awesome.
For one, it costs approximately 9 Canadian dollars to get a ticket to the game, and it’s free seating inside: go anywhere you like. While in Toronto, this would translate to something dystopic, a kind of Mad Maxian death-battle for seats, in Korea is means gently assembling into whereever is pleasantly acceptable. To get in the few seats that are directly next to the field, you have to pay a whopping 3 dollars extra for premium tickets. For an extra super premium, you can get box seats, or rent out picnic tables and relax somewhere just beyond the outfield.
Second, everything else costs less, and is awesome. Before Munhak Stadium in Incheon, lining the path from the subway station to the field, is a shanty village. In this shanty village are chicken ajummas and old men standing around cauldrons of ice, mewling out to every passerby. Ancient Koreans, possibly just unfrozen from subterranean caves, cook pounds and pounds of potatoes, grill corn, and slice tubes of kimbap for hours every day. Huge boxes of disgustingly greasy chicken, stewed inches away in makeshift buckets of oil, come dirt cheap, and the beer is similarly bargain-bin priced.
The first time I went to a game, I remember purchasing a beer, and standing in front of the gates of the stadium, preparing to chug the contents. But my Korean friends stopped me: outside booze (barring soju) is a-okay in the stadium. What? You mean they are not preparing every method possible to gouge me? What a country!
Inside the stadium, things are similarly cheap, and plentiful, and everywhere around, there is a buzz. Entire seas of people wear the local team colours, and feverishly inflate their thunder sticks. Through out the game, there are synchronized chants, and dances, and songs for every single player. There is a stage where cheer leaders direct the spirit and fervour of the crowd onto the field, and professional goons in monogrammed jerseys wander the front of the stadium, revving up different parts of the game. But it’s not a scary, British soccer riot kind of passion. I never feel threatened or worried that I’ll get kneecapped; the most passionate fans I’ve met usually jovially hand me some of their snacks and thank me for supporting the team.
There are free things. People from the field toss extra balls over the fences to beaming children, and cheerleaders take regular breaks to catapult t-shirts and jerseys into the rapturous crowd.
At the most recent game, my Korean friend alerted me that it was now time for the pizza dance (how he divined this I can’t be sure), and he got my friends and me to begin calling to the cheerleader for food. This, he remarked, was the primary strategy: getting her attention early so she knew where to look later. Soon she stood on a little podium, and began dancing, which the crowd vaguely followed along with. Minhyeok had an ace up his sleeve: he was sitting with half-a-dozen white people, who naturally stand out. We began sheepishly attempting the dance (there were a lot of peace signs), holding her eye contact whenever she glanced over, and making sure she was aware of our effort. Do you see us dance? we communicated via telepathy. Surely no one is more deserving of pizza than we, the weirdos who look different. Sure enough, when the time came, she barreled down to us, handed over the box, and gave a knowing nod, as though to say, “Well done, freaks!”
(My friend Ty looked around several minutes later and remarked: “I forgot that when we got the pizza, there were a looooot of Korean people who didn’t get the pizza.” Gotta bring a weird-lookin’ friend next time!)
Further, Korean baseball knows drama. A former assistant-manager has now risen in the ranks and manages the SK Wyverns (Incheon’s team), much to the deep, roiling chagrin of my friend and many in the grounds. The new guy has betrayed the former manager or the team in some way or another (the details sluice from my brain every time Minhyeok describes them to me), and also is very open about trying to Christianize all the players of Incheon. Thus, there are banners displaying the anger, counter-songs screamed from vitriolic lungs throughout the game, and vicious protests at the end of each game. At a recent match with the Dooson Bears, a large group in the crowd began holding candles aloft, chanting the names of the players as though they were the dead in vigil, to properly represent their grief.
In short: Korean baseball is a big drama-pit with cheap chicken and beer, and sometimes you get free pizza if you dance hard enough in the crowd. If there was less steroids and more free junk back home, I might actually endure a game or two.