|Seoul's Jamsil Baseball Stadium is crowded with spectators during the opening games of the 2019 Korea Baseball Organization League regular season between the Doosan Bears and the Hanwha Eagles on Sunday. The Eagles routed the Bears 11-1. / Yonhap|
Largest crowds turn out at KBO openers
By Kang Hyun-kyung
The opening games of the 2019 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) League regular season attracted 114,208 spectators, the largest crowds since the league was launched in 1982.
The previous opening games record was 96,800 which was set in 2009.
Four baseball stadiums in Seoul, Changwon, Busan and Gwangju were crowded with spectators, while about 3,000 seats were vacant at the SK Happy Dream Park in the port city of Incheon.
This year's spectator tally shows there was no Asian Games fallout on the KBO League.
The national baseball team came under fire last year, even though South Korea won gold at the 2018 Indonesia-Palembang Asian Games.
Some players of the national team were accused of "using the Asian Games to get military duty exemptions." Male athletes who win gold medals at the Asian Games or any Olympic medal are entitled to an exemption from their mandatory military service.
Some players, who were selected for the national baseball team, had not shown performances strong enough to be included in the roster for the Asian Games, prompting the allegation. Coaching staff were also under fire as they were responsible for selecting the players, leading manager Sun Dong-yol to step down.
Korean baseball suffered a credibility crisis and some baseball experts worried the allegation could deal a blow to the KBO league. But the opening games seem to defy any such effect.
The previous opening games record came a year after South Korea won a gold medal in baseball at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This paved the way for a baseball boom the next year, prompting baseball fans to turn out in stadiums during 2009 games.
Despite this year's record-high spectator turnout, no stars were born.
Last year, KT Wiz rookie Kang Baek-ho rose to stardom. He hit a solo homer off Kia Tigers' then ace Hector Noesi when KT was losing 0-2. Kang became the youngest player to hit an opening game home run and the first KBO player last year to hit a home run in the opener. The super rookie caused the Suwon-based club to see a surge in spectators last year.
This year, however, there was no super rookie like Kang.
Two local ace pitchers_ Kia Tigers Yang Hyun-jong and SK Wyverns Kim Kwang-hyun_ failed to become winning pitchers.
Yang pitched six innings against the LG Twins. His pitching was solid. He had a quality start with eight strikeouts, allowing only one RBI. The Tigers hitters remained silent and lost to the Twins 0-2. Since 2015, Yang pitched in the opening games three times but was unfortunate as he never became a winning pitcher in the three games.
Wyverns' ace Kim also failed to clinch his first win, although his team won the opening game against the KT Wiz 7-4. Kim allowed 4 RBIs and three walks in six innings and was taken off the mound when the two teams were tied 4-4.
The Wyverns, last year's Korean Series champion, managed to win the opening game 7-4. The Incheon-based team lived up to its nickname_ a homerun manufacturer.
Last year's Korean Series MVP Han Dong-min and Canadian-born slugger Jamie Romak produced a two-run homer each, playing a critical role behind the Wyverns' victory against the KT Wiz.
The SK Wyverns and the Doosan Bears are two favorites to win the 2019 regular season. The Bears edged out the Hanwha Eagles 5-4, and the Kiwoom Heroes beat the Busan-based Lotte Giants 7-4. On Sunday, the Eagles routed the Bears 11-1.
The Changwon-based NC Dinos proved their rebuilding effort in the wake of their disappointing performance last season was successful. The Dinos routed the Samsung Lions 7-0. Two Dinos sluggers_ Christian Bethancourt of Panama and the KBO Leagues' best catcher Yang Eui-ji produced back-to-back home runs in the first inning. Yang joined the Dinos this season after he became a free agent last year and signed a mega deal with the team.
A recent Gallup survey shows the Kia Tigers is the most popular KBO club with 11 percent, followed by the Lotte Giants (10 percent) and the Hanwha Eagles (8 percent).
The survey was conducted on 1,004 people from March 12 to 14.