Baseball takes a firm grip

1st October 1999 at 01:00
In 2002, Korea co-hosts the football World Cup with Japan. Brendan O'Malley looks at a country where they take Western sport seriously

Their heroes may be the LA Dodgers, but the high school students kitted out in baseball breeches, red-striped shirts and long-peaked caps are taking on their local rivals in the heat and dust of the afternoon in Seoul. The catcher, clad in body protection like an ancient Korean warrior, is crouched at the ready. The pitcher raises his left knee in slow motion, draws back his right arm, eyeing his target, and steps forward, flinging the ball at the striker like a shot from a sling. Crack. The ball flies through the air and arcs downwards, hitting the ground in a cloud of beige mist. Fielders scurry towards it. But the hitter has made it to first base.

They take sport seriously here, especially if it is baseball. But football is popular too - and likely to be more so when Korea jointly hosts the 2002 World Cup with Japan - as well as basketball and golf.

At Seoul High School, the baseball squad of 35 has two full-time coaches and a full-time manager. They have their own gym for weight training and they train six days a week, four to five hours each time - and then they practise. Sunday is the only day of rest. While most students endure many hours at the chalk-face, the baseball team ends classes every day in time for a 2.30pm start on the pitch.

"We are going to be middling this year," says team manager Sun-woong Lee, "But next year we are going to be one of the top teams. We need time to adjust."

There's usually a match once a month. Only 12 from each side get to play in each game. Sun Woong Lee says he plays the best nine each game and rotates players for the last three places. Nationally, there are 54 teams for 16 to 18-year-olds; 15 of these in Seoul. They play all the teams in the city to qualify for the presitigious President's Cup and they play in three tournaments against teams from all over the country. For many of the players the dream is to become a professional when they leave school.

Tae-won Kim, 18, has lasted the pace in the Seoul High team for three years and goes to pro matches once or twice a month. His favourite position is shot-stopper, between second and third base. "I'm not very good in studies," he says. "But I've always like baseball - even when I was a baby I was always swinging a stick - and I want to be a pro, though it's hard to get in."

Baseball came to Korea from the United States via Japan, which occupied the country between 1910 and 1945. Korean Chan-ho Park, the LA Dodgers' pitcher, is a national hero and has inspired many young Koreans to aim at professional baseball.

Sun-woong Lee, himself a former pro star, can expect to earn 3 million won (pound;1,500) a month as a team manager, compared to 2 million won a month for his coaches. But he says the secret of technique is very hard to explain, it varies from individual to individual.

"Everybody needs a good eye when they hit the ball, a strong arm, strong waist and a strong wrist - and if you don't have any one of those you are not going to be a good player," he says.

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