21 August 2004

Korea's Baseball Diaspora

The Korea Baseball Organization League has prospered, but not in proportion to the talent levels of Korean players--the best of whom often play in the Japanese professional leagues. In The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, Robert Whiting wrote about the roles foreign players from the United States and Korea played in Japanese baseball. "The American is not the only 'outsider' in Japanese baseball, he's just the most visible," Whiting observed. "Koreans also fall into the same category. But while the American is merely resented, the Korean is often looked down upon." Whiting claimed many Koreans born and raised in Japan played baseball because the game offered a way up and through Japan's strict social hierarchy. Even so, the escape route was only open to those Koreans who suppressed their heritage by assuming Japanese names and trying to pass for natives. Most did it so well that even their Japanese fans were duped. A favorite activity in Japanese ballparks to this day is "Korean spotting"--trying to figure what players, if any, are second-generation Koreans. Whiting quotes another knowledgeable writer who calculated there were so many Korean players in Japan "if you removed them all there wouldn't be any more Japanese baseball."

To underscore Whiting's point, few realize that Masaichi Kaneda, considered the greatest pitcher in Japanese baseball history and nicknamed the "God of Pitching," was a Japan-born Korean. Scores of other stars in Japan's two professional leagues actually were born in Korea and emigrated to play baseball.

Much has changed in the more than two decades since Whiting broke cultural and historical ground with The Chrysanthemum and the Bat. And the Korea Baseball Organization is one of those changes. Korean stars now have a native outlet for their talents. And many are eager to pursue that outlet. But the level of play in Korean professional baseball still is universally regarded as inferior to that of Japan and, certainly, the United States. The Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan is widely considered better than the Korean professional league. So there still is an allure for talented Korean players to look elsewhere to challenge their abilities. Japan remains a ready and lucrative forum for them.

And, of course, in the 1990s, the United States finally began to be an option for truly exceptional players from Asia. The Los Angeles Dodgers created a minor sensation in 1993 when they paid $1.2 million to sign Park Chan Ho, an economics major and star pitcher at Han Yang University. Park went to the States, westernized his name to Chan Ho Park, and radically changed his pitching motion, which for years featured an excruciatingly long pause at the top of his windup. Japanese pitchers often use the same pause and compare it to ma, the dramatic pauses so essential to Kabuki dialogue. In You Gotta Have Wa, Robert Whiting quotes a fan of the famous Japanese relief pitcher Yutaka Enatsu, who claimed to know the secret of his hero's success: "He was good because he knew how to use the ma. He waited for just the right moment--a lapse of concentration by the batter--to deliver the pitch." But umpires and fellow professional players in the United States took one look at Park's ma and cried foul over something they had never seen before. Park took it all in stride, quietly altered a lifelong habit, and was a pitching star in the Major Leagues within two years.
SOURCE: Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia, by Joseph A. Reaves (U. Nebraska Press, 2002), p. 128-130

Reaves does best where he is able to draw on the work of previous researchers, like Robert Whiting.

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