Most passionate baseball fans? Koreans say they deserve the prize.
Move over Yankee fans and Red Sox Nation: Koreans revel in the American pastime, and claim their fans are more dedicated and serious.
Suwon, South Korea
Priscilla Marté sits about six rows back in the elite seats behind home plate, her 13-month-old son in her arms, while his 7-year-old brother hangs out in a playroom beneath the stands. On deck, waiting for his next at bat, is her husband, Andy, star of the last place KT Wiz, the newest club in the 10-team Korea Baseball Organization.
Ms. Marté watches while Andy, who played off and on for three US major league teams and spends winters playing ball in his native Dominican Republic, takes a few practice swings. From 25 feet away, his wife is confident he senses her presence.
"He knows I'm here, he knows where I am," she says, smiling broadly as the home-team crowd at the newly remodeled stadium in this historic, one-time dynastic center about 15 miles south of Seoul chants to the beat of drums and the animated gyrations of cheerleaders in mini-skirts.
The Korea Baseball Organization, founded 32 years ago, has so captured the passion of fans both for the game and the stadium experience that baseball has become the nation's No. 1 one spectator sport, forging far ahead of soccer. Two years ago, 6,809,965 fans paid to watch baseball while soccer got 2,852,388. (Basketball is surging here in popularity but remains a distant third among the sports-watching public.)
The baseball teams are all fielded by Korea's major conglomerates, which value them for both advertising and revenue.
Korean fans more enthusiastic?
While Korean schools and colleges produce star-quality players, each team also imports foreign players. Teams are limited to three foreigners each except for the Wiz, allowed four foreign slots as a new team. But it remains hard going for the Wiz. They've been known to defeat established clubs by wide margins but are now 10 games behind the ninth-place team, the LG Twins. Their record now stands at a dismal 37 wins and 72 losses.
Such is the Korean passion for going to the ballpark though, that Cho Joo-han, Wiz marketing director, predicts more than half a million people will have bought tickets to Wiz games by the time the 144-game season ends next month.
Mr. Cho, who got a master's degree in sports management from Indiana University and dreamed of working for an American team, believes Korean fans are more dedicated than are Americans. "Baseball is part of the culture," he observes, but wonders whether Americans go to games largely for "the atmosphere."
Cho cites two factors behind his judgment: One is that Korean parks hold no more than about 30,000 seats, so everyone can see.
Another is that all teams have wildly enthusiastic cheerleaders who put on elaborate routines similar to those of K-Pop groups on Korean TV. Typically, the female cheerleaders are led by a young man who acts as emcee, backed by loud music. The effect draws thousands into cheering and singing in full-throated solidarity.
By now baseball "has become a unique Korean culture," says K.C. Park, at the league's office in Seoul. "When people want to relieve stress, they go to the stadiums to unleash their energy."
Yes, he acknowledges, "Cheerleaders are indeed quite famous" and "some fans visit the stadiums just to see them" -- though "what really matters is the game itself."
Concentrate for all nine-innings
At 32, having batted in the low 200s with the Cleveland Indians, Marté is having his best year, leading the Wiz with a .362 batting average and 16 home runs. "I had a good year in triple A," he says, explaining why he was offered a contract. "They were looking for a third baseman."
How is it making the transition from American to Korean-style baseball? "They play small-ball here," he says. "There's a lot of bunting, stealing bases, hit-and-run. That's their strategy."
Above all, though, it's the Korean passion that's different. "They take it so seriously," he says. "They are in the game all nine innings. It's awesome."
Will he be here next year? "I don't know yet," he says, as he leaves the stadium with his family for a short walk to their nearby apartment. "I hope so. I love it."