Take me out to the ball game

AFL fans could learn a thing or two from Korean baseball supporters.  With DJ’s, dancers, kiss-cams, blaring music and a repertoire of songs for each player, simple boos and cheers won’t do.

There is a theatre to Korean baseball that is not unlike a major pop concert – except the entertainers are the crowd.  The opening song – their national anthem – is about the only subdued element of the entire marathon spectacle.

Even as you arrive at the stadium, it’s a carnival atmosphere with cheerleading dancers, competitions and buskers all vying for your attention.

We sat in the ‘exciting seats’ – that’s how they are marketed online.  And they didn’t disappoint.  We knew we were in for a treat when we asked the group of westerners (clearly long term expats in Busan) which gate we needed to enter and there was a universal ‘oooh’ from the entire surrounding crowd when they saw our tickets, ‘Oh, you guys are in the exciting seats!’  Yes indeedy we were.

Behind our own netted enclosure, we were eye level with the pitch.  This gave us a chance to watch the players come and go from the dugout, get up close with the team mascot and actually see how fast the pitcher threw (typically around 140kms).

Never at the AFL could you bring in your own food and beer.  We could.  Across the street are vendors selling cans of beer for $1 which they put in a plastic bag with ice for you (plus a few complementary bags of pretzels).  That was pre-dinner drinks and nibbles sorted.

Throughout the entire game (which can go anywhere from three to six hours), a “chief cheerleader – typically male – and half a dozen very attractive young female cheerleaders lead the crowd in song after song of orchestrated dance routines from stages in the crowd around the stadium.  Men banging on large drums beat in sync with the music blasting from mega-sized speakers.

Outside the stadium, vendors are selling plastic “thunder sticks” (for less than a dollar), which make loud noises when smacked together.

Each player apparently has their own designated song, chants and moves.  We spent the entire night trying to guess the very familiar songs being sung in Korean.  It was enough familiarity for us to be able to dance along and hum the tune, so even if you don’t speak the language, there is no missing out on the action.

According to an ABC article, different repertoires are planned for specific situations, as when the opposing pitcher attempts a pickoff. Everyone shouts, “Ma!” warning their own runners to stop and get back to the base.

We couldn’t work out how everyone knew what to sing for every occasion, but it turns out that the songs and lyrics are posted on the Internet fan web pages. To watch 20,000 fans all singing and dancing the same moves to song after song was like some major flash mob performance that has to be seen to be believed.

For the Lotte Giants – the home team we were there to support –the highlight begins at the end of the fifth inning. The official fan club officers distribute their team-colour orange plastic bags to thousands of fans in the stadium, where the level of coordination and team spirit is so strong that it takes less than ten minutes for the bags to reach every seat.

Fans were quick to blow air into bags, tie them in a balloon shape and flip them on top of their heads, creating a sea of orange bobbing heads.

When a player hits a home run, the place is turned into a rock concert with everyone standing up and dancing side-by-side in coordinated steps to ear-blasting music.  I’ve only ever seen that level of enthusiasm at a Bruce Springsteen concert and even then, I’d question the comparison.

Something else Australian sporting fans – in fact any sporting fan could take note of – is how phenomenal an experience an event can be when the crowd is well behaved.  Despite the soku and beer slugging action, this was a crowd of pure joy and solidarity – no aggressive drunken behaviour, no threat of a fight, no racial or abusive comments hurled (and there were different races playing for each team).  These are a people who know the meaning of respect.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the feeling of ‘being safe’  here is invaluable (except for the lunatic taxi driver however who drove us home at 90kms in a 60km city zone – madness!).

We finished the night by catching the subway back to Gwangali Beach which was a hive of festival action.  Music, all kinds of street performers and throngs of people just enjoying a balmy summer evening along the beach.  The Gwangali Bridge is best seen at night – a suspension of thousands of lights across the water.  We ate dinner at 11pm at Sharky’s which is a well-known drinking haunt in the area. Sometime after midnight we wandered back to the main road to catch a cab (lots of soju vomit along the way to remind us that the Koreans indeed know how to drink to excess!) and into the waiting near-death taxi trap.

Quite amazingly (given my complete lack of interest in most sport), I’m going to rate this experience in my top ten of all time.  A big call I know, but that’s an indication of just how entertaining a game of baseball in Korea is.

Thanks to Robin Barbieri and Grant Fenwick for sharing such an amazing, unforgettable night with us.

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