It was 1998, so that’s 25 years ago.
It was the first time professional athletes were allowed to compete in baseball at the Asian Games. With the “carrot” of military service benefits, the Korean National Baseball Team assembled a so-called “dream team,” recalling the days when they had to play against the likes of Japan and Taiwan.
The team was composed of professional elite members, including Park Chan-ho (LA Dodgers), who was playing in the Major League Baseball at the time, and Seo Jae-heng and Lim Chang-yong, who were coveted by the big leagues. More than 40 percent of the team was made up of former amateurs, including Park Han-yi (Dongguk University) and Shin Myeong-chul (Yonsei University), who went to the Asian Games as professional and possibly all-star players.
In their first preliminary game against Chinese Taipei, South Korea won a cold game in the seventh inning. They were allowed to play professionally, but the rules were still in place for aluminum bats, so balls hit to the center of the bat by the sluggers were sent flying like ping-pong balls.
The shockwaves were quite loud in Taiwan, which had been the dominant force in Asia in the amateur world. South Korea, of course, went on to win the gold medal in a sweep, catalyzing a “Korean Major League” rush that included Park Chan-ho and Seo Jae-ng Byung-hyun, both of whom received military service benefits.
The joke of the “legitimate military service broker” took root in Bangkok in 1998, during the IMF era.
On March 3, Taiwan hosted the international tournament at the 40,000-capacity Taipei Dome. It’s a fairly modern dome that took more than a decade to complete, although the dates of its inauguration are disputed, including 2009 and 2011. Nippon Professional Baseball’s Sadaharu Oh, the Taiwanese-born chairman of SoftBank who is a legend in Japanese professional baseball, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the historic opening. The Taipei Dome, which is reminiscent of the early domed stadiums in Major League Baseball, such as the Astrodome, was the first to feature a national team game against “nemesis” South Korea.
The Asian Championships, where teams of young players under the age of 23 compete to be crowned the “Asian Superpower,” is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With three international tournaments this year alone – the World Baseball Classic, the Hangzhou Asian Games, and the Asian Baseball Confederation Championship – this tournament stood out as the strongest display of amateurism.
The Korean team was composed of second-team players and some university students who had no first-team experience. The baton was entrusted to head coach Lee Dong-dae. While rankings are important, the team was selected to give the younger players international experience to help them perform better in the pros.
The expectation of a close match was beautifully missed. South Korea, with little experience in a dome, let alone at the international level, was swept by Chinese Taipei, who fielded a de facto “young all-star” lineup. The offense, which managed just four hits through the ninth inning, was more representative of the reality of amateur baseball in Korea (including the two professional teams) than the mound, which gave up four runs on 10 hits.
The unearned runs, especially on defense, were bittersweet as they highlighted how weak Korean baseball is on fundamentals. The way the Taiwanese national team, composed of minor leaguers and Taiwan Professional Baseball Young Guns, took a knee without showing any ‘spice’ was reminiscent of Taiwan’s ‘Dream Team’ 25 years ago, which was crushed by Korea’s ‘Dream Team’ without a single effort.
There are many excuses, such as lack of experience and unfamiliar environment. What is undeniable is that Korean players’ fundamentals are much worse than those of other countries in the same age group. The problems that were exposed at the WBC, Asian Games, and APBC were presented like a gift set on the first day of the tournament.