After the KBO lost a number of star players to the American big league over the last two winters, there was a concern that the domestic league would suffer from a lack of quality and lower interest. However, despite the predictable obsession with every at-bat or pitch by a Korean in the MLB, the beginning of the 2016 Tire Bank KBO season has not fallen short in excitement, class and new stars stepping up to the plate together with the usual fun associated with Korean baseball. Stories of the league struggling this year have proved premature, and Korean baseball is in rude health.
For the casual and hardcore fan, this year has seen two brand-spanking new stadiums to take your inflatable cheering sticks and chicken along too. Here in Seoul, Nexen Heroes have moved to the controversial Gocheok Dome next to Guil station on Line 1, and the team has responded well with a solid start that sees them floating around the play-off places despite losing star players. The stadium itself has some issues with some slightly obscured views in certain seats, but the biggest benefit is that the dome guarantees you won’t have to spend all day checking the weather. The facilities are also a vast improvement on the Heroes’ previously shabby and run-down home in Mokdong.
If you fancy making a whole day of watching baseball, you can take a trip down to Daegu to watch the Samsung Lions play at the aptly named Lion’s Park. Not only will you be watching the baseball from the most modern stadium in Korea, but from now will be the perfect time to go and watch Samsung if you are a Lion’s fan. After their normal sluggish start that saw them stuck down in the lower reaches of the standings, they have finally begun their yearly ascent towards the top. Driven on by slugger Choi Hyung-woo, who has already passed 10 home runs and will be fighting out for title of home run king vacated by Minnesota Twins’ Park Byung-ho, they are putting behind them a tough six months when THAT betting scandal hung over them.
The team Samsung is chasing down is the current champions Doosan Bears. After taking the Korean Series last year, the Bears’ relentlessness has seen the Jamsil co-residents winning two-thirds of their games and only losing one of their series battles so far to strugglers Lotte Giants. They have been led by six-year KBO veteran Dustin Nippert, who leads the pitching stats in wins and strikeouts and sits on a near perfect record. He has been joined by Michael Bowden, another American pitcher signed this winter, who has hit the ground running and finally given Nippert the partner he needs. On the hitting side, the loss of fan favourite Kim Hyun-soo to the Baltimore Orioles has been salved by the emergence of Kim Jae-hwan and Oh Jae-il as serious sluggers with career best stats.
But the Bears are unlikely to have it all their own way,with pre-season favourites NC Dinos from down south in Masan hitting form over the past few weeks. Led on the mound by Eric Hacker, who sports his signature beard shared by fellow NC batting ace Eric Thames, the Dino’s recovery from a slow start has put the club ahead of the chasing pack. They have a terrifying combo in the batting order, with four of the leading hitters from last year in a lineup that is beginning to post some astronomical numbers. They nabbed practical joke loving (and more importantly big hitting) third baseman Park Seok-min from Samsung Lions in the winter and he has joined Thames, Na Sung-bum and Lee Ho-jun in a lineup that will undoubtedly lead the team to the playoffs this year, and possibly to the title.
Here in Seoul, the remaining two teams have had very different fortunes. LG Twins, who also occupy Jamsil Stadium, are struggling down in the lower half as many fans predicted. The Twins started fairly quickly, but have since regressed back to their average from last year. The only bright spot for LG has been Luis Jimenez, who at one point held a sizeable lead in the home run race and had more home runs than some of the struggling teams’ entire lineups.
Meanwhile, the SK Wyverns, who play just outside Seoul in neighbouring Incheon, have started in a much stronger fashion and look a decent bet to sneak into the postseason shake-up. Jeong Eui-yoon, who was traded to the Wyverns from the LG Twins after never really getting going in his career, has caught fire this season and is leading the runs scored table. He joins a growing rank of players traded away by the Twins who have gone on the post huge numbers, frustrating LG’s large Seoul following.
But if we are talking frustrated fans, that award has to go to those of the long-suffering Hanhwa Eagles. After finally showing some improvement last season under the stewardship of old hand Kim Seung-kun, the start of this season has been nothing short of a total farce for the team from Daejeon. The team has the highest combined salary in the league but is cut far adrift in last place, at one stage allowing 56 runs in only five games against the two Jamsil occupants. Pathetic pitching, bizarre pitcher selections, comic fielding and poor batting has been brought together in a nightmarish concoction to leave the team not even breaking into the double digits in wins after 35 games. To put that in context, the leaders at that point had 24 wins.
The Eagles will be hoping to catch up with the rest as the season goes on and as the pack hunt down the reigning champions. With over 100 games left to go, there is no shortage of opportunities to catch some baseball as both the weather and the competition heats up into June and July. Don’t miss out on what is looking to be a close mid-season and an exciting finish to a league attracting a more committed fan base with every swing and pitch.
Check out http://www.mykbo.net/ for the latest on the KBO season