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Baseball Is a Smash in Korea After Win Over the U.S.

Times Staff Writers

Even Koreans who had never before watched a baseball game through to the end, much less tossed off a baseball statistic in an elevator, could talk about little else Tuesday after their national team beat the Americans at their own game.

In a country that occasionally wears an inferiority complex on its sleeve, especially when it comes to sports, Monday night’s World Baseball Classic game in Anaheim was a seminal moment. The 7-3 victory made South Korea the only unbeaten team in the 16-nation tournament and has imperiled the U.S. team’s title hopes.

Tears streamed down the cheeks of some South Koreans. And given their 17-hour time difference with Anaheim, the game all but brought productivity to a halt at offices here Tuesday.

“It was absolutely amazing. We couldn’t keep our eyes off of the game,” said 35-year-old Hwang Hong-bin, who watched at a restaurant at lunch. “Nobody could work at all after lunchtime.”

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Internet sites buzzed with excitement over the win in the series, which concludes Monday. South Koreans attributed the defeat of the American team to the far stronger sense of national purpose here.

“There is a lesson for the Americans. You can’t win if you are too proud and underestimate your opponents,” said Han Jae-myong, 40, a former soccer player in Seoul who drives a taxi.

Besides the national team spirit, Korean sports commentators attributed the strong performance to early practices for the tournament, which began in January. In addition, the South Korean government promised to grant its players an exemption from a mandatory 26 months of military service if the team made the semifinals.

This was a case of the protege beating the mentor. The introduction of baseball to Korea is generally credited to Philip L. Gillett, a missionary who apparently was as keen to spread the love of the sport as of Christianity. He formed the first baseball team at the YMCA here in 1905. By that time, baseball was already popular in Japan and the game spread during the Japanese occupation of Korea that lasted four decades, until Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II.

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South Korean baseball authorities celebrated the centennial of the sport in December, when commemorative stamps were issued. But baseball has not been as popular here as in neighboring Japan. The teams are not associated as much with hometowns as with the chaebol, the conglomerates that dominate the business scene. Hence you have the Samsung Lions and the Hyundai Unicorns. The Seoul newspaper Segye Ilbo noted today with an underdog’s relish that the collective salaries of the 10 highest-paid Korean players totaled about $4.5 million, compared with $90 million for their U.S. counterparts.

The South Korean national team includes Koreans who play at home and some who play abroad, such as Seung Yeop Lee, who plays with Japan’s Yomiuri Giants, and Hee-Seop Choi, who is with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They are united in the World Baseball Classic by their nationality -- enough, it seems, to give them an edge.

As Choi put it in a pool interview, “It’s a lot more meaningful because I [play] for my home country.”


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