Missionaries brought the game of baseball to Asia in the late 1800’s. Centuries later, it has evolved into nearly the same game as we see in the United States — on the field, that is. Off the field is a completely different story.

On Tuesday, we went to Games 2 and 3 of the World Baseball Classic’s First Round. Pool A featuring Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, Korea, and Israel. The games were held about an hour subway ride from our hotel at the Geokuk Sky Dome – a stadium that’s less than two years old.

The stadium itself is fast and airy. Holding 18,000, it was far too big a venue for the games, as most of the concessions weren’t even open and the Game 2 crowd watching Chinese Taipei vs. Israel wasn’t much over 3,000 if that.

Our host for Games 2 and 3 of the WBC.

The benefit, however, of having a small crowd that travels is that they are passionate. And this is world baseball, which means a party in the stands. Taiwan brought their own horn section. The downside is that they got their asses kicked even after a ninth inning rally.

The dome was so quiet at times, you could hear the manager shouting commands to the catcher and pitcher from the other dugout.

Our seats, however, were fantastic. (Honestly, the only better seats we could’ve had were next to the Manager. And attendance was so light, I’m not sure he would’ve noticed. HEY-OOOO) Baseball fans like Sungwoo and the rest of our party didn’t need trumpets and walk up music. We were watching off-speed pitches in the dirt and clutch base hits.

There were also several storylines on the field worth watching. Team Israel barely made it past the qualifying round into the Classic yet pulled a huge upset of host team Korea in Game 1 of the tournament. And they jumped out to a big lead over Taiwan in Game 2. Unfortunate, because the Tiawaneese were looking for a party.

It didn’t matter. They partied anyhow with their trumpets and their chants (they have a different one for each batter) and also Jeff.

Jeff was sitting next to us living and dying on every pitch. Sometimes he would bring out his Taiwan flag, then quickly put it away when that batter struck out. When Taiwan would do something good, he’d run up and down the row giving everyone high fives. Jeff is good people.

Jeff damn near pulled off the greatest comeback in the history of baseball, too. In the ninth inning, down 15-2, Jeff willed the leadoff hitter to a walk. Then a single, then a double. And then Taiwan had suddenly scored four without an out. Jeff was going to pull this off. Jeff and the trumpets and the chants and the crazy jumping up and down from the modest crowd down the first base line were going to come back on Israel.

But the deficit was just too great and Jeff would go home – still with a huge smile on his face.

That’s the thing about baseball that I love so much. Those that really get it, get that it’s not about winning oftentimes, it’s about surviving the 70% failure rate you get in the game. The ones that really get it, know that the life lesson is that you keep on smiling and live to play another day. (Taiwan would lose a heartbreaking game to the Netherlands the next night eliminating them from the tournament.)

A quick note about the food. I’m sure I’ll have a post dedicated to all of the different food we’ve eaten here in Korea, but baseball food is sacred. There were no nachos or hot dogs on a bun. But I was able to find what they called a pretzel dog. Which was a pretzel bun and a turkey hot dog. (Wondering if they’d have had a more traditional pork or beef hot dog if it wasn’t a world game?) It wasn’t bad, but you can’t find real mustard here. I’ve only been able to find honey mustard and that was pretty sparingly. We also had something akin to chicken nuggets that came in an overpriced box. Most all of the food here has been reasonable, but the stadium food, as you might expect if you’ve been to a lot of Royals games, was pretty overpriced for the quality. What wasn’t overpriced was Cass beer. Cass is the equivalent to Bud Light and it was $2.50 a can. Try getting a three dollar beer at Kauffman.

They just handed you the can and a plastic cup during Game 1, but they went around and collected all the cans in Game 2 and you had to pour the beer into the cup before returning to your seat. This is apparently because angry Korean fans like to throw their cans onto the field when there are errors made.

Regardless, any crappy stadium food can be washed away with cheap crappy beer. That’s true baseball.

Game two featured the host city Korea. The crowd was nearly at capacity for this one, and their cheering section was much more legit. They had loud speakers and cheerleaders complete with NFL-style outfits (read: skimpy) and yell leaders. They also had their own chant for each hitter, but they had the benefit of the portable speakers.

The chants and music would continue through the home teams at bats and it didn’t matter when the pitcher went into a delivery or not. They kept cheering, and singing, and blowing their whistles.

Strange thing about the whistles. All of the ushers had them, and would blow the whistles when a foul ball had a chance of reaching the stands. Pretty good idea, actually.

A lot has been made of the wrap-around netting that you see in many International baseball stadiums, including the KBO. There was a very tall netting that was behind the backstop – like you’d see anywhere else. Then shorter netting that extended from the dugouts all the way to the foul pole.

It was annoying for about 2 minutes. Then your eyes adjusted and it was just part of the game.

Obviously, I’m partial to Team #NED

Korea lost Game 2 and that dropped them to 0-2 for the tournament. A huge source of embarrassment for the host city and one that will echo into the next WBC in four years if there is one — especially since they managed to score only one run in two games.

There are rumblings that this will be the last World Baseball Classic, partly due to lack of interest and partly due to the Olympic Committee reinstating baseball as a summer Olympics event. Korea lost to a Netherlands team that featured four all-star caliber shortstops on their roster led by Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers. Look for this team to go a long way in the coming days in Round 2. They could give Venezuela and the United States a run for their money.

If this was the last one, I’m so grateful that I got to see it. In most ways it was just another doubleheader – but it others, it was unlike any pair of baseball games I’ve ever seen.

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