By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- To say Gwangju is a passionate baseball town would be to oversimplify the fan base in that gritty city, located 330 kilometers south of Seoul.
Of course, there are some hard numbers. In the 2017 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) regular season, the Tigers drew a club-record 1.02 million fans in their 72 home games. It helps to play in the 20,500-seat Gwangju-Kia Champions Field, which opened in 2014 after the club spent its first 32 seasons in the downtrodden Mudeung Stadium, which only sat 10,000. But it took the Tigers four seasons -- and a first-place finish in 2017 -- to finally surpass the million mark.
But consider this: Three other clubs also played before more than a million fans this year, but they're based in much bigger cities. The LG Twins (1.13 million) and the Doosan Bears (1.09 million) share the 25,000-seat Jamsil Stadium in Seoul, the nation's capital with 10 million in population. The Lotte Giants, who play out of the 26,600-seat Sajik Stadium, had 1.04 million fans this year. They're based in Busan, a metropolitan city of nearly 3.5 million residents.
Gwangju's population, in comparison, is 1.46 million. The Tigers' home attendance this year equates to about 70 percent of the city's population.
And those 1.46 million people are hungry for more this fall.
The Tigers, thanks to that aforementioned first-place finish with a record of 87-56-1 (wins-losses-ties), headed straight to this year's Korean Series, the KBO's championship final. The best-of-seven affair opens later Wednesday at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field against the Doosan Bears, the two-time defending champs that gave the Tigers fits in the latter part of the regular season.
This should be a dandy. Not only are they the consensus picks as the two best teams in the KBO this year, they also boast enthusiastic fan bases who will most likely pack both stadiums for the duration of the series, no matter how long it lasts.
The Bears won the inaugural KBO championship in 1982 and are trying to become only the third team to win at least three straight championships. But the Tigers are also a proud franchise with an all-time high 10 titles, and they are 10-for-10 in the Korean Series too.
But the civic pride in Gwangju runs deeper than those championships, five of which came in the 1980s.
Aside from its baseball excellence, Gwangju is perhaps best known for the 1980 pro-democracy uprising against the military junta led by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan. Met with severe repression, the movement left hundreds killed and thousands of others wounded and missing.
The KBO was created in 1982, with Chun still in power as president. The Tigers, then operated by the confectionery company Haitai, were among the original six clubs.
And with the memories of the 1980 uprising and its bloody consequences still haunting people in Gwangju, the Tigers provided a perfect distraction for the city. They won the 1983 Korean Series and then reeled off four straight championships from 1986 to 1989. They added another title in 1991, giving them five championships in six years.
At the height of the Tigers' power, they looked practically defiant in their road jerseys -- the blood red top and pitch black pants. And the baseball field, whether it was the rundown Mudueng Stadium, which opened in 1965, or some other poorly maintained KBO ballpark of the 1980s, was the one place where the suppressed people of Gwangju could lay claim to supremacy.
In many ways, the Tigers were more than a baseball team for the 1980s Gwangju. They were an institution and a source of social cohesion, with fans reminding one another that there were so many others like them who tried to ease their pains by watching their favorite baseball team. The people might have been defeated by the military government, but their baseball team was the winner.
The Tigers produced a fair share of MVPs and All-Stars. Sun Dong-yol, only the greatest pitcher in KBO history, won three MVPs for his hometown club. He had two full seasons in which his ERA was actually under 1.00 -- 0.99 in 1986 and 0.89 in 1987 -- and he retired with a career 1.20 ERA in 1647 innings as a starter and later as a closer.
Lee Jong-beom, perhaps the most gifted position player ever to play in the KBO, is another Gwangju native who carved out an outstanding career as a Tiger. He batted .393 and stole 84 bases in just his second season in 1994, and had 30 homers with 64 steals in 1997, when he helped the Tigers to their ninth title and was named the Korean Series MVP.
Both are products of Gwangju Jeil High School, which has also churned out not one, not two, but four Major League Baseball players: pitchers Kim Byung-hyun and Seo Jae-weong, and infielders Choi Hee-seop and Kang Jung-ho. Kim, Seo and Choi have all returned to play for the Tigers late in their careers.
With these proud fans watching intently, the Tigers will play their first two games of the series at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field. The next three games will be at Jamsil Stadium, and if the series goes beyond five games, the final two games will be back in Gwangju.
So far, the Tigers have celebrated only one of their 10 championships at home. Until 2015, the KBO scheduled "neutral" Korean Series contests for Games 5 to 7 at Jamsil Stadium if a team in the final had a home stadium with fewer than 25,000 seats -- the mark was lowered to 20,000 seats in 2015 and then the rule was abolished before 2016. If the Korean Series went seven games in that situation, then the team with a home field advantage would play two of the final three games at Jamsil as the "home" team and bat last.
The league put this rule in place to maximize exposure of the league's signature event, though it forced teams like the Tigers and the Samsung Lions -- who used to play at the 10,000-seat Daegu Stadium, built in 1948 -- to celebrate the majority of their championships away from home.
The Tigers actually closed out eight of their 10 titles at Jamsil. The only championship celebrated before home fans came in 1987, when the Tigers were the lower seed against the Lions and played the final two games of a four-game sweep at Mudeung. In the 1991 Korean Series, the Tigers held the home field advantage and completed another four-game sweep of the Binggrae Eagles on the road in Daejeon.
And with the neutral games out of the picture, the Tigers once again have a chance to pop their champagne at home. For that to happen, though, they'll actually have to lose at least two games in the series and bring it back to Gwangju for Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7.
But no matter where the banner is raised, the Tigers won't feel lost. Their fans have always traveled well -- or rather, there are transplants from Gwangju and the surrounding Jeolla regions all over the country that road games often feel like home games for the Tigers. Seoul is no exception.
And during the media day Tuesday in Gwangju, the Tigers left-hander Yang Hyeon-jong said matter-of-factly, "We think we're going to play seven straight home games in this series."
When the name of the Tigers' new stadium was announced in 2014, some scoffed at such pomposity of including the word "Champions." Though the Tigers had 10 championships, they were coming off their worst season in six years, finishing eighth out of nine teams in 2013 -- one below the expansion NC Dinos -- with just 51 wins.
They ended up in eighth place again in 2014, the inaugural season at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field and did only one better in 2015, only because the expansion KT Wiz finished last in 10th place.
But the Tigers got into the wild-card game last year, and after making some big moves in free agency and the trade market, the Tigers rebuilt themselves into a title contender.
In four seasons at the new ballpark, the attendance has steadily risen from 663,430 in 2014 to 710,141 the following year and then to 773,499 last year.
And in 2017, the Tigers enjoyed a 32 percent increase in attendance, the largest leap in the league. They averaged 14,234 fans per home game. It has played out like the scene in the film "Field of Dreams." Once the stadium was built, people did come.
Toward the end of that baseball flick, Ray Kinsella is reunited with his late father, John, who wonders if he's in heaven when he's actually in Iowa.
"Is there a heaven?" Ray asks.
"Oh yeah," John says. "It's the place where dreams come true."
And if Gwangju-Kia Champions Field finally gets to celebrate an actual championship team in it, Gwangju will turn into heaven too.
(LEAD) S. Korea to provide loans worth 100 tln won to innovative firms, SMEs
Samsung to launch first 5G smartphone on April 5
Preorders of BTS' new album surpass 2.6 mln copies
Actress Park Han-byul apologizes for husband's involvement in growing sex scandal
Gov't vows thorough investigation into 3 sex-for-favor cases
(4th LD) N. Korean staff return to inter-Korean liaison office
N.K. denounces Seoul over slow progress in implementing inter-Korean deals
Trump was open to easing sanctions at Hanoi summit: N.K. official
U.N. grants sanctions exemption for humanitarian aid to N. Korea
(LEAD) Dozens of S. Korean officials head to joint liaison office after N. Korea's abrupt pullout