It is Friday evening and Jamsil Stadium is host to Seoul’s hometown rivalry: the Doosan Bears versus LG Twins. Sold out, the stadium is packed with everyone from Gangnam’s elite to ajusshi’s who spend their days selling Korean pears from the trunk of blue Hyundai trucks.
While on the green bus to the stadium I passed through Songpa-gu, where the twilight hour began to sparkle with the neon flare of noraebang, or karaoke, signs. Inside the windows of sooljips and hofs, or bars, televisions began to broadcast the pre-game show for those baseball lovers unable to attend. I head there without a ticket, content with my chances of scalping one. If anything, meandering around the stadium for an inning or two would satisfy my curiosity of how the quintessential American sport is translated on the Korean Peninsula.
One scalper, with a raggedy hat and a hare-lip, refuses to stoop to my offer of 10,000 won. Uninterested in the outcome of the game, I have patience on my side, knowing that by the third inning the tickets will practically be given out for free. I have no desire to barter and soon sit down near the fried squid vendor to avoid the pusillanimous ajumma who keeps clandestinely tugging at my arm to solicit a ticket in dubious whispers.
Suddenly, without any initiation or request, the scalper walks over and hands me a ticket, saying “free.” I pull out the green 10,000 won bill in gratitude, but he nods his head in refusal, and I am soon at the stadium’s gates heading toward the cheapest seats around. I definitely overestimated stalling until the third inning for a free ticket.
In the baseball stadium, chicken boxes and pizzas are towed on strings and in personalized packages as fancy as the Spam boxes sold at Homeplus.
A frenzy of Korean businessman with Cass beer and KFC buckets of chicken haul their greasy delights up isles and towards their seats for 9 innings of saturated-fat-ridden enjoyment. On the field the pitcher pinches some oil with cloth, greasing his glove near the dug-out. Suddenly, Gangnam Style sets off a raucous reaction as drunken ajusshis and a few ajummas caught by one of the cameras that scan the crowd break into the giddy-up on the stadium’s large television. Burger King cheeseburger wrappers are already crumpled and discarded near the rail as I amble toward my seat.
I am less interested in the score than to see whether or not the seventh inning erupts in a rendition of “take me out to the ballgame.” With no peanuts nor cracker jacks on sale, the vendors go from isle to isle with jingo chips and Hite on tap. My hypothesis that kimbab was the Korean hotdog had been wrong; and to my dismay there is no patbingsu stall in sight. The game gets quickly underway with home runs and fireworks; so quickly, in fact, that I fail to even register if I had partaken in the Korean national anthem or notice who threw the opening pitch.
I spot a few fellow westerners in attendance: some appear to be ardent and avid long-time fans, some sharing my fish-out-of-water wide-eyed awe and enthusiasm amid the screaming bob-head mascots, rattling blow-up sticks and renditions of K-pop songs with the words altered to fit the names of LG All-Stars.
The fans on my end of the field, rooting for the LG Twins, have inflated white-and-red balloon boppers. They are shaped like baseball bats and inscribed with the LG Twins logo. Each out, each hit, and even in the intermittent songs and chants, the crowd escalates into a bombardment of noise. They riotously bang their blow-up sticks together in a giant choir, a cacophony of sound that fuses into a grand neo-Confucian ritual.
Clapping, singing, shouting and cheering, the baseball bastions, some still in office suits or hiking garb, become a homogenous unity of collective catharsis. This is where PC Bangers can expunge the carpal tunnel from first person shooters and become a third person voyeur; where Korean business man can bash balloons instead of crunching numbers. It is a neurally charged crowd, stimulated by the simulation of vicariously stealing second base, catching a fly ball and snatching a double play: sweeping the long working weeks up like a ground-ball and clearing the bases like a synaptic cleft: at least until the Monday morning relapse.
Words and images by Paul Keelan