Korea skidding since superb WBC showing

Originally Published: March 1, 2007
By Jim Allen | Special to ESPN.com

MIYAZAKI, Japan -- There is little doubt that South Korea's game has come of age. Forever playing in Japan's shadow, the Koreans have had much to crow about in recent years. Yet, despite stunning success in the World Baseball Classic, the Korean Baseball Organization is perched perilously on the edge.

"People just aren't coming to the parks," said reporter Jeong-Seok Yang, who covers Korea's greatest home run hitter, Seung Yeop Lee, who left his homeland in 2004 to play in Japan. "The situation is not so different from Japan, where top stars are going to the majors and people are less interested in the domestic game."

Lee Seung-yeop
AP Photo/Shizuo KambayashiDon't be surprised to see Seung Yeop Lee ("The Lion King") in a major league uniform.
Pitchers Chan Ho Park and Byung-Hyun Kim and slugger Hee-Seop Choi have been the biggest names for Korean fans in the majors. Lee's home games with the Yomiuri Giants are available to television viewers in South Korea.

But while Japan's vibrant amateur game provides hope that its stars can be replaced, Korea's amateur base is far smaller.

"We don't have anywhere near the number of players coming out of universities and high schools," Yang said. "And with attendance dwindling, one club at least [the Hyundai Unicorns] is trying to get out of the business and no one seems interested in taking it over from them."

The national team has been the biggest ray of hope, particularly with emotional victories over Japan, Korea's former colonial ruler.

In 2000, although the nation was convinced it was robbed by umpires in the semifinals of the Sydney Olympics, Lee still led the Koreans past Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka in the bronze medal game, sending Japan home empty-handed.

In 2003, Lee set what the KBO still touts as the single-season "Asian home run record" by hitting 56 for the Samsung Lions. Since the mark was set in Korea rather than against the best in Asia, the boast is a hollow one. Though no one seemed to mind in South Korea, tragedy was just around the corner in November.

Disaster struck in Sapporo, Japan, in the first game of qualifying for the Athens Olympics as Korea fell to Taiwan in extra innings. Lee was largely a bust in Sapporo, and his team was blown out by Japan. Failure to make the Olympics was a crushing blow, but it was also the genesis of the nation's great triumph of 2006, when Team Korea reached the WBC semifinals.

While all but two of Japan's major leaguers spurned their national team for the WBC, the memory of the slaughter in Sapporo prompted a 100 percent turnout from Korean big leaguers.

Manager In-Suk Kim threw one experienced major leaguer after another at the enemy as Team Korea swept through the opening round in Tokyo, with a dramatic win in the finale over Japan. He repeated the feat in the quarterfinals.

But things have gone downhill since then. While fans tuned in to watch Lee's breakthrough season with Japan's Giants, attendance back home has floundered.

In 2005, Lee had helped defeat his former Korean club in the finals of the inaugural Asian Series. But when Samsung returned to the Tokyo Dome in 2006 as Korean champ, the Lions didn't even reach the finals after losses to the champions of Taiwan and Japan.

"I think it is a chance for other young players. I want the children to know you can have really big dreams. I want them to dream big, too. I hope those dreams will inspire people and benefit the game back home."
-- Byung Kyu Lee

At the recent Asian Games, which the Koreans have long ruled, the national team -- made of pro all-stars -- failed and was defeated by gold medalist Taiwan and Japan's squad of amateurs.

In the domestic league, things have been no better.

Whereas few young Japanese players turn pro in the States, South Korean amateurs are increasingly more eager to skip the KBO altogether.

"They are hungrier than the Japanese kids," said Leon Lee, former Pacific Rim director for the Chicago Cubs.

Lee, who starred in Japan, was the man who signed Choi to his first contract.

With Korean talent percolating in major league systems, the fans at home are less likely to see big stars take the place of Seung Yeop Lee and his Korea teammate Byung Kyu Lee, who begins playing in Japan this spring.

"I think the fans must feel sad," Byung Kyu Lee said. "I think it is a chance for other young players. I want the children to know you can have really big dreams. I want them to dream big, too. I hope those dreams will inspire people and benefit the game back home."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.