Baseball fans pack Jamsil Baseball Stadium to watch Game 2 of the playoffs between Doosan Bears and LG Twins last Thursday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
The lights are on, the crowd cheers and you can almost taste the tension mixed with the cool autumn breeze. It’s “Autumn Baseball,” a term coined by Korean fans to highlight the excitement brought about by the postseason of the country’s top baseball league.
At the peak of Autumn Baseball, the Doosan Bears and Samsung Lions are locking horns in the championship Korean Series, which will continue throughout the next week.
Much is at stake for both teams. If Doosan ends up winning the title, it will go down in history as the lowest-seeded team to win a championship. Should the Lions triumph, the team will become an unprecedented “three-peat” champion.
While the Bears’ trip to the finals was hard fought, their opponent was what underscored the unique nature of this year’s postseason: three of four teams competing were based in Seoul.
With the Seoul trio of Doosan, LG Twins and Nexen Heroes performing at such a high level, the city has established itself as the baseball capital of the country, at least in terms of popularity.
The second round playoff match between Doosan and LG packed out the stadium.
“The defense is what excites me the most. Plays like the sliding catch get me all worked up,” said Kim In-yeong, a 23-year-old fan of the Bears, while waiting for Game 2 of the Doosan-LG series last Thursday.
“This is my second time going to a baseball game. And I love it most when a player hits a home-run!” a little girl en route to support her beloved Twins chimed in.
As Doosan has made the postseason twice in the last decade, that they snared No. 4 seed hardly came as a surprise. The Heroes and the Twins, on the other hand, stunned baseball circles with their runs.
Since joining the league in 2008, the Heroes had been practically a non-entity, with their best record being sixth overall last season.
The team turned it around this season, powered by reigning league MVP Park Byung-ho, becoming the fastest team to reach the 30-win mark in June and finishing the season in the No.3 spot to make its first-ever postseason appearance.
The biggest story of the season, however, belongs to the LG Twins, which clinched its first playoff berth since 2002 by taking second place in the regular season.
It is difficult to pinpoint how a team that finished second to last just the year before managed to rebound and compete for the top spot.
Experts said that the Twins had been able to turn their two biggest weaknesses into strengths: the pitching and team chemistry.
“LG always had a weakness in their pitchers. Now, they’re topping the league in team ERA (earned run average),” baseball commentator and former KBO coach Heo Koo-youn told The Korea Herald.
Last year, the Twins’ team ERA was 4.02, seventh worst in the league.
Heo also pinpointed LG’s third-year manager Kim Ki-tae as the main reason behind the team’s little-expected surge.
“In the past, LG was notorious for its abysmal team chemistry, but Kim managed to unite the players behind him,” Heo said. “The players, the coach, and the team management have never been so in sync.”
Despite respectively falling to the Bears in the first and second round of the postseason, which is in the form of a stepladder tournament, the Heroes and the Twins exceeded the expectations of most people and gave their fans plenty to cheer about.
A 25-year-old college student Kim Byung-soo said that he had been teased in the past by his friends for rooting for such a hopeless team.
“We all supported different teams and it was hard for us LG fans in the ‘darker times.’ But LG fans do not waver, even in those times,” said the life-long Twins fan, adding that he was proud of his team’s success.
Source: Doosan Bears
The stellar performance by LG resulted in strong attendance. In the regular season, some 1.29 million fans ― up 2 percentage points from the year before ― walked through the turnstiles to see the Twins.
LG’s feat was even more pronounced in light of every other team drawing fewer fans compared to the 2012 season.
Prior to that season, it was widely anticipated that the introduction of the expansion team NC Dinos would hurt the KBO league’s popularity. As the first time the league operated with nine teams, one of the teams was forced to take days-long breaks in the middle of the season.
Experts said that this might drive away the fans used to baseball teams playing six times a week.
Lotte Giants, one of the league’s most popular teams, suffered the most as decline in overall popularity coincided with the team failing to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007. The Giants’ numbers nearly halved to 770,681 this year from 1.37 million in 2012.
LG and Doosan Bears, which drew 1.15 million fans, were the only two teams that had more than 1 million fans attend their games this season. Combined with Nexen, whose fan base is relatively small due to its short history, the number of fans who attended games of Seoul-based teams accounted for roughly 45 percent of the total attendance.
The fact that these teams nest in a city of roughly 10 million was a decisive factor behind their popularity. Another important aspect was their marketing strategy.
The Doosan Bears are a striking example. The team mapped out a strategy of targeting young adults and putting extra effort into appealing to women; as a result, it retained a higher number of fans in the stands.
Traditionally, the majority of baseball fans in Korea have been men, but the percentage of female fans has been going up in recent years.
According to 2012 research by an online ticket sales site, Ticketlink, 40.7 percent of those who attended baseball games last year were women, up 2.5 percentage points from the year before. The Bears were quick to absorb this batch of newfound fans.
Kim Cheong-gyun, head of Doosan’s Baseball Marketing Team, said that women made up 47 percent of Bears fans. At events such as Queens’ day ― on which the team gives away gifts and discounts to female fans ― female fans outnumber their male counterparts 51 to 49, he said.
Seoul teams’ rise to prominence poses an inevitable question: Is the Korean baseball league too dependent on big markets?
Last year, the KBO league set a new attendance record thanks to Busan-based Giants attracting the most fans in the league. The trend was repeated this year as LG and Doosan carried the load.
Teams dwelling in smaller cities -- such as Daegu’s Samsung Lions -- are removed from the public eye. Despite defending champion credentials and the best record in the regular season for the third year running, the Lions drew a meager 451,000 fans to their ballpark. The only team that hosted fewer fans was the Hanhwa Eagles, which finished last.
“Although baseball remains the most popular sport in the country, it (the dependence on big cities) is abnormal,” Heo said. “What will happen if the teams based in those cities fail to deliver? The attendance will plummet.”
Intern reporter Im Woo-jung contributed to this article. ― Ed.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)