Dong-Hee Park, a pitcher for Korean University and a standout on the Korean College all-star team, knows all about the lively ball debate. So does his coach, Nam-Soo Choi.
Speaking through an interpreter yesterday on the University of Maryland campus, both said home runs in South Korean baseball are coming at an increasing rate this year, just like in the major leagues.
While Korean baseball is not known for powerful sluggers, the Korean College all-star team, in Washington for a few exhibition games in preparation for a five-game, five-city tour with the U.S. college all-stars, has been hitting the ball longer and farther lately.
No home runs were hit during the Koreans' 4-0 win over Wagner, a 20-and-under team in the Maryland State Baseball League. But Wagner Coach Clayton Jacobsen, who has hosted teams from the Orient in previous years, noticed a difference in the Koreans' style.
"The kids last year, they'd take a three-quarter swing," he said. "But these guys take a good swing. They take a better swing than the kids we played last year, no doubt about it."
Why the change? It's the professional influence, said Coach Dong-Hun Hwang of Choong-Ang University, who accompanied the team. Korea's new professional baseball league apparantly is inspiring younger players, who, like most baseball fans, love home runs.
And then there's the U.S. influence. South Korea has its share of U.S. military bases, and the locals take every opportunity they can to tune in to radio or TV broadcasts of major league games and keep tabs on their favorite players (Dwight Gooden and George Brett are among the most popular). This season's homer spree no doubt has left its mark on these overseas followers.
"I think the American ball would have an influence, there's no question about that," said Woodie Harris, coach of the Industrial League's Fairfax team, which earned a 10-8 victory over the Koreans in the second game of yesterday's doubleheader. "And then the Japanese, they've taken a lot of our players . . . I think that is actually all they like: to be a top-notch contender in the baseball world."
Still, Korean professional baseball, only six years old, has some striking differences from U.S. ball. There are only seven teams, with no minor leagues; the better college players go directly to the pros or to the nine-team semipro league. College baseball itself is competitive: of the 150 to 200 colleges nationwide, only 18 have baseball teams, and the best players in the league are almost guaranteed a place in the pros. Not surprisingly, 97 percent of all pros in Korea are college graduates.
Salaries are relatively low. Although the highest-paid player will collect up to $1 million a year, the average pay is roughly $30,000. The 20 ballplayers who make up the all-star team can expect a starting salary of about $15,000 when they enter the big league. Salary arbitration is not nearly as frequent or as embittered as in the United States, and there are no free agents. There is a World Series, though, a best four of seven games series between the winners of the each of the 54-game halves.
Yet, on the playing field, the game is just the same. The umpires are just as loud (as Park will attest to), the physical play is just as aggressive and the South Koreans have given a few new twists to the art of throwing the ball around the horn, a ritual they perform only after a ground ball to the pitcher.
The all-stars have one more game in the area, when they take on the Industrial League all-stars tonight at 7:30 at Olney Manor Regional Park. They then will tour with the U.S all-stars to Durham, N.C., Norfolk, Richmond, Hagerstown and Youngstown, Ohio, before returning to South Korea.