Baseball proves a rare hit with fans

OUTSIDE the Munhak Baseball Stadium, a man walked hand in hand with his toddler son, baseball gloves peeping out of their bags.

Families and couples sat at tabled seats, munching on finger food and watching the sporting spectacle unfold before them.

Amid a cacophony of chants, songs, drum beats and applause, a capacity crowd of 28,000 largely partisan supporters watched on as hosts and defending champions South Korea beat Chinese Taipei 6-3 in the Asian Games men's baseball final.

The sight of packed terraces was a much-needed change for the Incheon Asiad, which has been blighted by poor turnout and slow ticket sales.

With only six days of competition left, organisers are still around 38 per cent short of hitting the 35 billion won (S$46 million) target in ticket sales, while tickets for the Oct 4 closing ceremony at the 61,000-capacity Incheon Asiad Main Stadium are selling at a glacial pace with an estimated 26 per cent of the tickets sold last Wednesday.

Empty seats at stadiums have been - and still are - a common sight.

But baseball, a sport introduced to South Korea by an American missionary in 1905, and whose domestic league, the nine-team Korea Baseball Championship, drew over six million spectators in the 2013 season, has been a smash hit with the fans.

Last Wednesday, Lee Il Hee, secretary general of the Incheon Asian Games Organising Committee, said: "For popular sports, we can sell out even if we don't try, for unpopular ones it's different and I ask for your understanding.

"We are expecting full capacity for football and baseball, and that will help ticket sales.

"With these individual popular sports and the closing ceremony, we will be able to reach our goal."

And yesterday, baseball batted all the negativity out of the park, if only for a night.

Two hours before the gold medal match was scheduled to start, traffic ground to a halt outside the complex even as policemen tried frantically to keep it flowing.

Fans decked in baseball jerseys of local teams streamed out of the Munhak Sports Complex subway station, to be greeted by the unmistakable smell of fried chicken and grilled meat from makeshift stalls.

Doosan Bears fan Yang Jae Young, 24, was one who arrived early to soak up the atmosphere.

He said, "I would say baseball has caught up with football in terms of popularity, because more and more people are watching it on television. The stadium will definitely be full for South Korea's matches, so I bought my ticket the moment it went on sale."

Even fans from overseas scrambled into Incheon to watch the baseball match.

Some 100 Taiwanese supporters flew in to see their heroes.

Wearing a hat with two mini Taiwan flags, Annie Lai said: "We know the team might not get much support in a foreign country, so we're here to give them that extra boost."

The match was a repeat of the final in 2010, which South Korea won 9-3.

The hosts also prevailed 10-0 when they met in the preliminary round.

This time, Chinese Taipei came out strongly, and led 3-2 at the end of the seventh inning.

But a sensational eighth inning saw South Korea, the 2008 Olympic champions, roar back with four runs.

Hwang Jae Gyun drove in two runs with a single, helping to wrap up victory as pandemonium erupted in the stands.

At the start of the fifth inning, it started to drizzle. Multi-coloured rain ponchos were promptly distributed and umbrellas sprouted to light up the stadium in a dizzying mix of colours. Because for one night, nothing could take the shine off sport.


This article was first published on September 29, 2014.
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