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Bat flipping and fancy cheerleading: How Korean baseball culture differs from US

Fans of the LG Twins cheer on the team during the KBO Opening Day, on Tuesday in a pub in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Fans of the LG Twins cheer on the team during the KBO Opening Day, on Tuesday in a pub in Seoul. (Yonhap)

While Americans take to watching Korean baseball as ESPN started streaming KBO starting with Tuesday’s long-delayed Opening Day, the unique baseball fan culture in Korea has yet to be shown, as the games are being played without spectators.

The baseball fan culture in Korea is unlike anything that fans would find in the MLB.

The first major difference is the cheering. All 10 Korean baseball teams have songs to support the teams, which are sung multiple times by the fans at each game.

There is also a chant for each batter, usually in the form of lyric changes to well-known songs. Although the MLB also plays entrance music for the players, fans singing for the batter in unison is unique to Korea. There is even an application in the Google Play store called “Pro baseball cheers,” where songs for each team and cheers for each player can be heard so that newcomers to the ballpark can practice and join in. Hundreds of fans pound together stick-shaped balloons in team colors to the rhythm of the chants, creating a festive atmosphere.

“Korean baseball is a lot noisier than MLB. Even the players are used to the bustling stadium, so we go to the games even now despite having no spectators,” said Doosan Bears cheer team official.”

The cheer chief who acts as the conductor, main singer and main performer from the start to finish of each game stations himself facing the spectators on the podium located in front of the stands and urges the crowd to scream louder, as the chief decides which song to chant next.

Around five cheerleaders join for each game, cheering throughout the game and dancing to popular Korean songs between innings. Cheerleaders usually put up special events during the halftime show as well.

“Many people buy tickets in front of the cheer podium in front of cheerleaders and the cheer chief because they enjoy the cheering so much,” said a KBO official.

Cheerleaders such as Seo Hyun-sook of Doosan enjoy popularity on par with K-pop idols, with Seo’s feature in the local edition of Maxim magazine setting a record for the fastest time to sell out.

“I enjoy the excitement of the ballpark, and my family all cheer for Kiwoom so I naturally became a fan. I’m sad that I can’t go to the park and hope it opens soon,” said one fan.

Each team also has its own special events during the game.

“In our case, we turn off all the lights in the stadium during cleaning time and turn on popular music so that everyone can sing along. There is a saying that the ballpark is the biggest karaoke,” said Cho Ji-hoon, cheer chief for Lotte Giants.

At the end of the eighth inning, we turn off all our sound system and hold up the flashlight on our phones while singing to support the players. We also started using the big screen in the field to host gift give away events using the ladder game,” said Doosan Bears cheer team official.

Another big part of Korean baseball fan culture is the diverse food sold at the parks. While MLB stadiums feature hot dogs, pizza, burgers, fries and sandwiches among other savory goods, Koreans’ go-to food-and-drink combination at the ballpark lately has been fried chicken and beer.

At some ballparks, here are barbecue area seats where fans can watch the game while grilling pork belly. Jamsil Stadium, home of both the LG Twins and Doosan Bears, is famous for its pork belly set menu of pork belly with kimchi and vegetables.

With the festive fan culture, ballparks are a popular date spot for Koreans who want some fun. Also, compared to the MLB, there is a much higher proportion of women in the stands, accounting to nearly half of the spectators last year.

“The advanced public transportation system in each city with the stadiums also contribute to ballparks being popular dating courses,” said a KBO official.

Then there is the matter of bat flipping.

In the more staid tradition of American baseball, bat flipping -- when the batter tosses away the bat in celebration after a hit -- can be frowned upon by many. Although some fans enjoy the performance, akin to American football’s end zone dance, it is considered insulting to the opposing team.

However, in the KBO it has been part of the game since the very beginning. As such, Korean bat flips are more exaggerated than in the MLB -- and sometimes even premature -- which provides extra entertainment for fans.

One development in KBO that was received negatively in the ballpark recently is the “give it to the kid” phenomenon. Fans would pressure people who caught a homerun or foul balls to give it to a nearby kid, which started from a gesture of kindness, but failed to be so in recent years.

By Lim Jang-won (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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