The Rooting Songs of Korean Baseball by Ralph Karst
It’s springtime here in South Korea, and that means cherry blossoms, people taking pictures of cherry blossoms, cherry blossom festivals, and traffic jams of people trying to get to cherry blossom festivals. And oh yeah—baseball! The 2014 Korean Baseball Organization season is underway, with nine teams smacking leather, swinging lumber, bringing the high heat, and eating sundae-guk-bap in the dugout. I’ve been a KBO fan in general and a Lotte Giants fan specifically for a while now. It remains one of best spring / summer entertainment bargains around, beside sitting outside a Family Mart, drinking beer, and girl people-watching. Ten bucks or less will get you into the ballpark for three hours of generally pretty good and sometimes charmingly inept play.
Besides the actual competition, you get a full-on “cultural experience.” Cheerleaders! Dried squid! Polite discussions with umpires! And singing, God, the singing! Korean ball games can sometimes resemble giant outdoor norae-bangs, with fans singing, almost non-stop, their team’s multiple fight songs. Lotte Giants’ “Busan Galmaegi” is definitely the best of the bunch. It’s an old Busan song (galmaegi = seagull), a slow ballad with typically tragic lyrics and a melody that builds upwards and then beautifully cascades down. It’s spine-tingling when 30,000 are belting it out, usually after a big home run.
In addition to team fight songs, each hitter has a specific 응원가 (“eung-won-ga”), or rooting song, usually chosen by the hitter himself. The lyrics of the original song are altered to include the player’s name, with 안타! (“an-ta!” roughly, “get a hit!”) at the end. The crowd will sing it every time the batter comes up, and sometimes continue for the whole at-bat. I’m of two minds about this. Yes, it’s fun and unique, and creates a carnival-type atmosphere, similar to European or South American football matches. It’s very different from the mellowness that pervades ball games in the U.S. At MLB games, fans generally burst into song only in the 7th inning stretch, for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (“Sweet Caroline” if you’re a
Red Sox fan asshole). The drawback to the constant singing is that it robs some of the drama from big moments. There’s no sense of situation—fans are singing the same damn songs and chants no matter if it’s a tie game in the 9th inning, or a 8-0 blowout. Also, these days most teams will, um, augment the singing with ear-splitting loud music over the slick sound system. This is different from Japan, where the fans still sing, but are accompanied by at most a few drummers and bugle players sitting together in the outfield. Well, if you’re looking for a purist experience, the KBO ain’t the place to look. But whatever the drawbacks, a KBO game is a terrific place to spend a sultry summer afternoon or evening, eat some squid, get a nice beer-buzz on, ogle perv on enjoy the cheerleaders, sing a few (or a lot of) songs, and watch some Korean dudes try to knock the ball outta the yahd.
So—here is my totally biased list of the best and worst eung-won-ga in the KBO for 2014. (With links to the songs provided, if I could find them. Also, thanks Woo-hee Lee and Hyoung-june Kwon for additional research!)
I had no idea what this song was, but the sound clip on youtube is awesome—a rollicking, accordion-filled Cajun/polka jam. I employed the razor-sharp research skills of my former student Hyoung-june Kwon, now a freshman at Stanford. He found out it’s based on a song called “Ai Se Eu Te Pego“ by Brazilian pop singer Michel Telo. Jeong should have a live accordion player squeezing this tune out every time he bats. Maybe he can get Crying Nut’s accordion player Kim In-su.
A total classic, either the original Roy Orbison version or the early Van Halen cover. Wait—what do I see? Four smoking-hot Korean baseball cheerleaders . . . they’re walking back to me. Mercy.
Several bands have given “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” the punk treatment over the years: most notably The Ramones (yeah!) and Blink-182 (*cough*). Chu Seung-woo may have derived his inspiration from the great 2003 Korean indie sci-fi mind-fuck film “Save the Green Planet,” which featured a punk “SOTR” in the opening credits, played by the American punk-cover band “Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.” Or maybe Chu was just a Blink-182 fan, but I’d like to believe the former. And, yes: “Me First and the Gimme Gimmes” is the greatest band name of all time.
Can’t go wrong with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” an old gospel hymn that Louis Armstrong turned into one of the foundational jazz tunes of the 20th century. March on, Park Byeong-ho, march on.
Would be better if one of the Americans playing in Korea used this song. Or even better—Korean fans singing the actual Green Day song whenever an American pitches or bats for the opposing team. One negative of the stadium singing tradition in Korea is that everything is kept polite and positive. Nobody ever sings anything that rips on the opponent with style and wit, or just plain nastiness. This is a staple of European football, like when Wayne Rooney was going through a painful separation from his wife Coleen and son Kai, a game at Everton featured the fans singing Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” with the words “No Woman, No Kai!” Korea baseball needs more hilarious loutishness like that. Which leads me to . . .
5. No Jung ho (NC): “One Two Fuck You”
I really don’t know this song, or how the fans actually sing it. I just saw the title listed on the NC Dinos’ website. That was enough for me.
4. Kang Min-ho (LOTTE): “넌내게반했어”(Neon Nae-gae Banhae-seo) / “River of Babylon” Lotte’s star catcher gets two separate rooting songs. When he comes up, it’s the Korean indie rock anthem by No Brain. Yes, you heard that right—indie rock! In Korea! It does exist! Too bad Kang undermines his indie authenticity by doing soju ads with K-pop sex kitten Lee Hyo-ri. Oh well. I’ll bet even Ian Mackaye would do Coors Lite ads if it meant he got to pal around with Lee Hyo-ri for a few days. Anyway – in the middle of the at-bat, the fans switch to the lovely, lilting hymnal “River of Babylon.”
3. Lim Hoon (SK): “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th symphony
O my brothers, it was as if some great bird had flown into the stadium. And I felt all the malenky little hairs on my plott standing endwise, and the shivers crawling up like slow, malenky lizards, and then down again. Because I knew what they sang. It was a bit from the Glorious Ninth by Ludwig Van. And he even wears No. 9! Whenever Lim comes up, he gets to hear a centuries-old choral tribute to joy, love, celebration, forgiveness, and brotherhood. So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice. It’s a shame fans can’t sing the original words of Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem, which Beethoven adopted for the final movement of his final symphony. Here’s one of the verses:
Joy is bubbling in the glasses
Through the grapes’ golden blood.
Cannibals drink gentleness,
And despair drinks courage—
Brothers, fly from your seats,
When the full rummer is going around.
Let the foam gush up to heaven—
This glass to the good spirit.
Not much to do with baseball, but a hell of a lot to do with getting drunk—which actually does have a lot to do with attending a baseball game, when you think about it. One of the greatest things about attending a ball game in South Korea? Bring in as much beer as you want! Seriously! Bring in a goddamn COOLER full of beer! No problem! And if you don’t bring your own, beer in the stadium is basically the same price as at a convenience store. Every time Lim comes up, it should be a stadium-wide one shot! one shot! one shot!
Groan if you must, but trust me, this one works really well. Those three massive power chords mesh perfectly with any Korean’s three-syllable name. Plus, fans do this kind of cool spin-motion with one arm over their heads, imitating an umpire’s home run signal. I know the main riff is the ultimate beginning guitar player’s cliché. But the whole song, beginning to end? Still fuckin’ rocks. Also—bonus points to Choi Hee-seop for changing to this song from his previous choice, “YMCA.”
The perfect summer song from the perfect summer band for the perfect summer sport. You win, Mr. Jeong.
This is the Bruno Mars song, not the Billy Joel song. It’s so saccharine that it makes Billy Joel’s classic soft-rock cheese-bomb seem as vicious as “Under My Thumb.” That’s an accomplishment.
9. Lee Sang-hoon (Samsung): “Let it Go”
Really daring choice, Mr. Lee. The hit song from the movie from a few months ago that has made a BILLION DOLLARS world-wide. A song that can still be heard every day in Korea, blasting out of convenience stores, cell phone shops, and coffee shops. There is no hiding place.
8. Lee Dae-soo (Hanwha) / Lee Jeong-sik (Samsung): “Karma Chameleon”
I have always liked this song. Actually, I think Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and “Karma Chameleon”are two of the greatest pop songs of the 1980s. But really, can you psych yourself up for a big at-bat thinking of Boy George? Maybe it could work if you were a virulent homophobe, and the song put you in the mood for some ultra-violent gay-bashing, which you could then channel into swinging the bat. Let’s hope this isn’t the intention of either Mr. Lee. (I doubt it–the Boy George look is pretty de rigueur for male K-pop idols these days.)
You remember this song from when you were a kid? “There was a farmer, had a dog—and his name was BINGO!” Then you’d sing out the letters: “B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O! And BINGO was his name-o!” Then you’d repeat it, except when you got to the letters, you’d clap instead of saying the “B.” The next time you’d clap on the “B” and the “I”. And so on, until you clap ALL the letters. Whoa! Even as a 5 year old, I thought it was corny and stupid. And corny and stupid it remains.
A fine old jazz / pop standard, but if you like to go to jazz clubs in Korea, as I do, you will hear a LOT of shitty-to-mediocre versions of “Fly Me to the Moon.” So hearing this song always makes me think of sitting in Apgujeong’s swanky jazz club Once in a Blue Moon with a hot date, paying 20,000 won covers, buying several rounds of 15,000 won cocktails, listening to crap jazz (that nobody else in the club is listening to, judging by the din of conversation), and not getting any play at the end of the night. I hope you strike out, Heo Do-hwan, just like I did.
Some of you will disagree. How can I possibly hate on The Turtles’ beloved 1967 sing-along? “I can’t see me lovin’ nobody but you, for all my liiiiiiife!” Not really a bad song at all. But this one’s personal. The song brings up memories of having to watch endless Public Television fund drives while growing up. My father ONLY watched America’s PBS, and if he was watching, we couldn’t change channels, even during the pledge breaks. Anyway, during the fund drives, PBS would always trot out the hoary old 60’s acts to get the aging boomers to whip out their American Express Cards to cover another year of Great Performances, the McNeil/Lehrer Report, and Masterpiece Theater. Cue: Peter, Paul and Mary! Cue: The Woodstock movie! (At least that one had The Who and Jimi Hendrix.) Cue: The Turtles. Jesus! Balding relics playing before the wine-and-brie set, the audience sitting dinner-theater style! When they finally get to“Happy Together”—which surely must be a tie with Don McLean’s “American Pie” for the song whose original performers are most sick of playing—and they sing the part where they substitute “ba ba ba” for the words of the chorus, the lead singer yells to the audience, “Let me hear you sing the ‘ba ba’s!” And he stops singing so he can hear the crowd sing, and, like, hardly anybody does. I still have nightmares.
Yes, indeed it IS a small world! Just think: far-off East Asian countries like Japan and Korea can embrace the quintessential American game of baseball and enjoy the sport’s pastoral rhythms and individual / group interplay and . . . fuck it, NO. This is an awful, awful, awful song.
Would you like to be called a “queen” every time you come up to bat? I didn’t think so.
What, was “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” taken?
Actually, Garko, an American, isn’t in the KBO this year—he’s now coaching at Stanford. But still—he
wins loses. Footloose!!! And yes, they would substitute his name in there, so it goes, “Ko! Gar-ko! Na-na-na-na-Gar-ko!” The only way this would have been redeemable is if every time he hit a home run, he rounded the bases while imitating Kevin Bacon dancing through that abandoned grain mill, or wherever it was. I don’t care if pitchers got so mad Garko got beaned in his next 80 at bats, it would have been worth it. Let them dance! Let them dance! Thanks, Mr. Garko for adding a bit of inspired silliness to the already wacky world of Korean baseball.