Editor's note: This story on bat flips in the Korea Baseball Organization was originally published on Oct. 4, 2016. The KBO is scheduled to begin playing games Tuesday (overnight Monday in the U.S.) on ESPN.
The videos started to appear in America a few years ago, crossing the Pacific and landing on our digital doorsteps like mysterious gifts. Their contents were joyously unfamiliar: Korea Baseball Organization sluggers walloping balls and then flipping their bats with abandon, sending them spiraling through the air. Montages surfaced on a website called mykbo.net, gifs hit social media, and ecstatic headlines soon followed:
Korean Baseball Player Flips Bat Like a Champion
Now This Is a Righteous Bat Flip
This KBO Bat Flip Will Rock Your World, Free Your Soul
When I first saw the clips, I was astonished. What was this place, this parallel sports universe where baseball players could shatter the game's unwritten rules? While American ballplayers from Mickey Mantle to David Ortiz have flipped their bats, the act is still perceived as a great offense here -- an insult to the pitcher, the opposing team and all that's sacred in America's pastime. This tension came to a head last October, when Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista triumphantly flipped his bat after a magnificent home run during the American League Division Series, a viral gesture that was codified into memes, baseball cards and, most recently, a corn maze in Canada. Many fans were thrilled. But some current and former players, such as Cole Hamels, Mike Schmidt and Goose Gossage, were not. "Bautista is a f---ing disgrace to the game," Gossage said.
As Major League Baseball struggles to overcome its staid image and lure younger fans -- according to Nielsen, most of the sport's TV viewers are over 50 -- the simple bat flip has come to symbolize the culture war being waged within its ranks. It's a conflict between those who believe the game should embrace the traditions of other countries and flashier elements of other sports, and those who, as Bautista wrote in The Players' Tribune, are "old-school, my-way-or-the-highway type of people who never want the game to evolve."
Meanwhile, in the Korea Baseball Organization, bat flips aren't just permitted -- they're embraced. "A bat flip isn't disrespectful here in Korea, which is a very formal, respectful country," says Dan Kurtz, a Korean-American who started mykbo.net in 2002 as a message board for English-speaking fans. "A guy flips and the pitchers don't do anything about it. It's just part of the game." Kurtz explains that bat flips, which are called ppa dun in Korea -- a term that combines the words for "bat" and "throw" -- are ubiquitous in the KBO. But he isn't sure how that happened. "People ask me, 'Why can't we do this in Major League Baseball?'" he says. "I want to know: Where in Korea did it originate and why?"
At the beginning of the summer, I posed these questions to American and Korean baseball writers and historians. Most gave the same response: Bat flipping is part of the KBO because it's always been a part of the KBO. I heard, over and over, that the custom has existed for years, but no one seemed to know why such a seemingly flamboyant act has thrived in a country where decorum is ingrained in the culture. Daniel Kim, a commentator in Korea, told me over the phone that he had passed along my inquiry to a few players. "They can't pinpoint a period of time or a certain player who started it all," he said. "If you're trying to understand bat flips, you have to understand how the games are watched." I asked him what he meant. "The passion and emotion in a KBO game -- I can't describe it. You've just got to experience it," he said.
So a few weeks later, I boarded a plane to Korea to see what he meant.
THE SEASIDE METROPOLIS of Busan is home to the Lotte Giants, a team famous for its zealous fans. On a sticky July evening, thousands of them file into Sajik Stadium, a concrete bowl surrounded by high-rises. After surveying the field, I decide to skip the Camping Zone (an outfield seating area with tents) and the Exciting Zone (along the first-base line) and sit in a section dense with fans wearing headbands with a little seagull -- Lotte's mascot -- fastened like antennae. When the game begins, they're quietly munching on dried squid and sliced pig feet. Aside from the snacks and signs, the scene feels similar to an MLB outing.
Then, halfway through the first inning, everything changes.
As the home team prepares to bat, four women wearing luminescent makeup and denim microshorts strut onto a raised platform. They look like K-pop stars. A small, spry man wearing a Lotte uniform -- the "cheermaster," I later learn -- hops out in front. As someone bangs on a traditional drum, he lifts a bullhorn and starts bouncing, clapping his hands wildly. When the Giants' leadoff hitter, Son Ah-seop, emerges from the dugout, loudspeakers start blaring music, and everyone around me rises, performing the same dance and chant:
Giants Son Ah-seop Son Ah-seop
Seung Ri Rul We Hae! Oh Oh!
When Son's at-bat ends, the crowd goes quiet. Then, seconds later, it starts again -- new batter, new song, new dance.
Lotte Giants Anta Kim Moon-ho
Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh
Throughout the game, the fans perform a variety of coordinated moves: tomahawk chops, gentle thrusts, wax-on, wax-off hand motions. Several of them follow the lead of a burly, bearded American wearing a Giants jersey. His name is Kerry Maher, and he's attended every Giants home game since moving here a few years ago to teach at a rural university, becoming something of a local celebrity. "They call me Lotte Grandfather," he says. "Now everywhere I go, I'm stopped."
The entertainment is relentless. After high school girls perform in a dance competition called "Giants Idol," the LED stadium lights abruptly shut off and everyone raises a cellphone, forming a flickering mass. Later, a silent army of workers distributes thousands of orange plastic bags, which the fans inflate into balloons and tie to their heads like billowing hats; from above, the crowd must look like an ocean of buoys. At the end of the game, everyone unties the bags and uses them to clean up trash.
A few years ago, my translator says, a drunk fan climbed the foul pole at Sajik Stadium and refused to come down. The team no longer allows liquor to be brought in, but the fan base still feels rowdier, and younger, than the typical MLB crowd. The seats are packed with 20-somethings, many of whom are women; my section stands for the entire game, screaming and dancing until the end. "I tell everyone: 'MLB is like opera, and KBO is like rock 'n' roll,'" Maher says.
Early in the game, LMFAO's "Shots" comes on, the designated song for Choi Jun-seok, a slugger whose girth puts Bartolo Colon's to shame. As the crowd dances (Choi's routine involves finger guns), he steps to the plate and lifts his bat above his head, then slaps a routine grounder up the third-base line.
He flips his bat.
After Choi is thrown out and lumbers back to the dugout, I watch to see if he's embarrassed -- he isn't -- then glance at the fans sitting around me. Did anyone just see that? No one reacts.
A few at-bats go by. Then, in the third inning, it happens again: Kim Ho-ryeong, an outfielder on the visiting Kia Tigers, flies out to center field ... and flips his bat. Na Ji-wan, a slugger on the Tigers, smacks a two-run homer ... and flips his bat. His teammate, Kim Joo-chan, flips his bat after a double. As the game progresses, the bats keep flying, sailing toward the on-deck circles like footballs spiraling out of a Jugs machine. The pitchers barely blink.
THE NEXT DAY, I arrive at the stadium a few hours before the rematch and spot an American lingering in the dugout. Josh Lindblom, one of the Giants' pitchers (teams are allowed to roster three foreigners), is a lanky, affable 29-year-old from Indiana. A second-round draft pick by the Dodgers in 2008, he bounced around the majors for a few seasons before landing in Korea last year.
Lindblom and I sit in a stairwell just outside the locker room, shouting over the wails of a Korean girls choir. I ask about the flips. "The first year -- I don't think I was pitching -- I saw somebody do it and I was like: 'What was that?'" he says. "Somebody told us it might happen. 'Don't freak out. Don't get mad. It's just what they do.'" Lindblom says he doesn't know why Korean hitters flip so often, or why some do it and others don't. "I don't even notice it anymore," he says. "It happens so much, I'm like, whatever."
Over the course of two days, I interview players on both the Giants and Tigers, many of whom, I'm told, rarely speak to the foreign media. The Tigers' bench coach, Cho Gye-hyun, is a former pitcher in the KBO. He tells me bat flips have never bothered him because he believes players don't do them on purpose. "It's natural," he says. "They don't have time to think about bat flips; they're thinking about hitting the ball."
When I mention I've seen KBO players wait a few seconds before flipping their bats -- pimping their hits, in American parlance -- Cho scrunches his nose. "It's a habit," he says. "It grows in them from elementary school."
While some hitters take batting practice (notably, no one flips his bat), I camp out in the dugout and wait. Eventually, Kim Joo-chan, who at 35 is one of the Tigers' oldest players, grabs a water bottle and sits down. I tell him that I've seen clips of his celebrations, and Kim shrugs impassively. "It's just spur-of-the-moment," he says. "I'm not aware that I'm doing a flip." He tells me to interview his teammate Lee Bum-ho.
A few minutes later, Lee, who has a round face and a warm smile, plops onto the bench. When I bring up bat flips, his grin disappears. "I don't realize that I'm doing it," Lee says. He pauses for a moment, searching for an explanation. "Asian players -- we have to put our full strength into the swing." He pantomimes a vicious hit, his wrists contorting as he pretends to release an imaginary bat after contact. "That's why the bat flips come out." (A month later, Kurtz will tweet a video of Lee flipping a bat after a walk and inadvertently hitting the umpire.)
I ask Lee if he flips his bat to impress his dancing, chanting fans, and he shakes his head. "I don't pay attention," he says. "I don't know why." He tells me he isn't the best flipper in the league. That's Choi Jun-seok, the slugger for the hometown Giants. "Choi is the person who throws it the farthest. He uses his whole body."
And so I find myself face-to-face with Choi, who is sweating profusely after taking a few practice swings in the boiling heat. Up close, I can see he's wearing a small hoop in one ear. As he mops his face with a towel, I lob a few questions: Do you do anything special for your fans?
What does it feel like when you flip your bat?
"I'm not doing it on purpose, so I don't have any feeling."
Are you aware that people overseas enjoy your flips?
After a few minutes, my translator thanks Choi for the interview. We all bow.
Before the game begins, I leave the stadium and meet up with Ryan Sadowski, a Lotte scout from Los Angeles who pitched for three years in Korea after a stint with the San Francisco Giants. Over a boiling pot of chicken, Sadowski tells me he enjoys the jubilance of Korean baseball. Players don't just revel in their hits, he explains, they also celebrate after defensive plays. "It's just a totally different culture," he says. "I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball. You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here, that I would take to younger kids in the States." I tell him about my interviews thus far, describing how the players insist that the flips aren't intentional and that they take no joy in them, despite visual evidence to the contrary. Sadowski doesn't seem surprised.
"If they were to admit it ... they won't admit it to American reporters," he says.
THE KANGDONG LITTLE League team practices next to the Han River, a massive waterway that slashes through Seoul, dividing the city of 10 million in half. On a sweltering afternoon, the players field grounders in spotless white uniforms as their mothers fan themselves underneath a tent. The country is experiencing a severe heat wave, but the boys still practice three hours a day, six times a week. They all dream of playing for one of Seoul's top high schools.
A couple of years ago, Kurtz published a montage of members of the country's top youth team flipping their bats at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. When the Kangdong players take a break, I pull aside a tall, whippet-thin boy with wire-frame glasses named Oh Hyun-seok. His favorite player, he tells me, is Oh Jae-won, a bat-flipping infielder on Seoul's Doosan Bears.
I ask if he has ever imitated his hero, and he nods enthusiastically, then mimics the KBO star's flip -- he pulls the bat over his shoulder, lets it rest for a few seconds, then flings it to the side like a piece of unwanted mail. "It feels good," he says, trying to ignore his teammates snickering behind him.
After the kids scamper back onto the diamond, I meet their coach, Kim Geun-woo, who is wearing a KBO polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts with tall black socks pulled up to his kneecaps. When I bring up the flips, Kim, a former pitcher in the KBO, smiles. "It's contagious," he says. "I think it's purposeful. It's fan service."
I tell him that the players I've interviewed so far haven't acknowledged as much, and he cackles. "I wouldn't either!"
As we watch the boys line up for a game of catch, Kim, 53, explains that amateur baseball has always been serious business in Korea. Long before the KBO was born, high school games drew massive crowds. In fact, he adds, the country has been mad about the sport since 1904, when an American missionary introduced it at a local YMCA.
"But the greatest influence," the coach says, "was through the Japanese."
When the Japanese occupied Korea in the early 20th century, they brought their passion for baseball with them, and the game swiftly surpassed basketball and soccer as the nation's pre-eminent sport. According to Joseph Reaves' Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia, colonial authorities aiming to "indoctrinate Korean youth with Japanese ways" forced schools to drop lessons in Korean history and language while promoting activities like baseball. As a result, Reaves writes, the sport became a tool of cultural suppression, but it also provided an outlet for young Koreans "to both appease and challenge their occupiers."
Baseball continued to flourish after World War II, but the KBO didn't exist until 1982, when a new government -- which came to power in a coup d'etat -- "actively began trying to put a kinder, gentler face on its authoritarian image," according to Reaves. Later that same year, the Korean national team played Japan at a tournament in Seoul's Jamsil Stadium. After a Korean player tied the game with a leaping bunt -- an iconic play known as the "frog jump bunt" in Korea -- the team pulled ahead and won the championship. "That was a turning point," Kim says.
Yet Korean baseball still lived in the shadow of the Japanese game, shaped by the traditions of the country's former occupiers. Many of the coaches and veteran players came from Japan; as a result, the KBO was heavily influenced by that country's league, which stressed contact, quickness and, most important, repetition.
Kim says the legacy of oppression weighed heavily on the budding league. "Back in the day, Japanese people looked down on Korean people. They felt like they could do anything with them," he says. "The initial style of baseball was adopted from that." In the KBO's early years, he says, players were overworked and underpaid, and they had to quietly submit to the sport's tacit rules or risk beatings at the hands of their coaches. "The hierarchy was such that if the manager said to do it, there were no buts about it," he says.
For years, this autocratic culture persisted, even as the league grew in stature and size. Then, in the early 1990s, Kim says, a rookie came along who "refused to mold." He was boisterous and brave and played with boundless swagger; he shattered slugging records, earning the nickname God. Whenever he hit a home run, he did something that Koreans had never seen before. He'd lift both arms like he was cheering, flipping his bat down the first-base line.
The player's name, Kim tells me, is Yang Jun-hyuk. "He broke the shell," he says.
WHEN I ARRIVE at the address for the Yang Jun-hyuk Baseball Foundation, I'm convinced that I'm lost. The cab drops me off outside a squat, nondescript building on a tucked-away street in Seoul's Gangnam neighborhood. A karaoke bar sits on the first floor, and a few old men are smoking in an alley next door. There are no signs with the baseball player's name. But I spot an entrance, so I go inside. After an elevator lets me off, I walk into a small, cramped office, and a tall, broad-shouldered man with large, ruddy cheeks emerges from a side door. "I'm sorry," he says. "It's humble."
Yang, who is wearing shorts, slippers and a linen shirt with a tag that says "Refined Taste," leads me into a small room filled with memorabilia from his days as a Samsung Lion. Between a pyramid of baseballs encased in glass cubes and a rack of camera-ready ties (he now works as a commentator), there's a photograph of him standing in a suit, cradling a lion cub in his arms. There are also pictures of the kids who play baseball for his foundation, which operates teams for underprivileged children and North Korean refugees.
He hands me a business card. Several of his hitting records are listed on the back: second in career batting average (.316), first in RBIs and runs, four-time batting champion.
Yang grew up playing baseball in Daegu, home of the Lions. He was a tall, thin boy and says he bulked up in high school by eating a whole chicken every night. Around the time he was drafted by the Lions, Yang started watching videotapes of MLB players, which inspired him to fiddle with his swing: "The coaches would teach players to stand a certain way and slash down to make contact. My method was to have an open stance and push up. A lot of baseball players and commentators didn't agree with it." At first, Yang says, the public referred to his swing as "dog-form," a Korean slang term for something that's considered abnormal.
When Yang entered the KBO in 1993, the league was still heavily modeled after Japanese baseball, with its rigorous systems and emphasis on modesty. But the rookie defied expectations. He showed up in the clubhouse with his ear pierced and was beaten by coaches; he strutted past opposing fans, who threw ramen soup at him when he celebrated. "In Korea, there's an expression: The nail that sticks up should be beaten back down," says Thomas St. John, a professor who teaches baseball history at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. "He was happy being that nail sticking up."
St. John covered the KBO for an English-language newspaper in the 1990s, around the time that Yang emerged as a star. "You were supposed to hit a home run, wear a stone face, run around the bases and come home," he says. Instead, Yang would flip the bat, then raise his hands "straight up in the air, almost like an NFL referee making a touchdown sign." The managers didn't like it, but Yang's success -- he was rookie of the year -- insulated him from criticism.
"He was good. He knew he was good," St. John says. "For lack of a better word, he kind of had a 'f--- it' style."
Yang smirks when I ask about his critics. "The conservative ones would rarely admit to being wrong," he says. "But because I delivered on my goals, I knew I was on track." He was the first Korean to flip, but others soon followed. By the late 1990s, he says, at least 10 hitters did the same. "We never labeled it," he says. "We recognized it later, looking back. But it never crossed my mind."
During the 2000s, Korean baseball slowly evolved, pivoting away from its Japanese roots. Former players say they grew more comfortable expressing themselves on the field, and the game's focus shifted from contact to power. "Watching practice now, Korean baseball players are free to work on the areas they desire -- as opposed to in Japan, where it's all set and cut," says Lee Seung-yuop, a slugger on the Samsung Lions who also played for several years in Japan.
International success followed. After placing third in the 2000 Olympics and advancing to the semis of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, the Korean national team finally won gold in 2008, beating Cuba at the Beijing Games. Ever since that victory, the KBO's popularity has soared. This year leaguewide attendance is slated to top 8.3 million, up 14 percent from last season. (By comparison, MLB's attendance, which hit 73.8 million last year, is down about 1 percent.)
I ask Lee, who surpassed Yang's home run record and also played for the 2008 national team, why that Olympic triumph meant so much to the country. "The No. 1 reason was that it was the first gold medal," he says. "And No. 2: The semifinals were against Japan."
AFTER SPEAKING WITH Yang, I am convinced that I've found my man. But the meeting leaves me with new questions. If the origin of the gesture is intertwined with the proud history of the game, why are players so reluctant to open up about it? Several people advise me to talk to a catcher named Hong Sung-heon, a veteran power hitter who is famously outspoken and beloved by fans. "When you see his personality, you'll understand," St. John says.
Hong is on the Doosan Bears, who play in Jamsil Stadium. On my way in, I spot a Doosan fan smoking near the entrance. After I promise not to reveal his name (he skipped work to attend the game), he tells me to look up a clip from an international game last year between Japan and Korea. One of the players, Oh Jae-won, performed an epic flip. I ask him if the celebration came after a monster home run. "It was caught at the fence," he says.
Did someone score off it?
He shakes his head.
Why, then, was it a great moment?
"The bat flip revved up people," he explains. Korea ended up winning 4-3.
Hong meets me in the bowels of the stadium. He's wearing a muscle tee that says "Big Bopper," and his hair is dyed a copper color that's popular with Korean teenagers. When we sit down, one of the foreign players walks by and Hong bellows: "Whassup?"
Unlike some of his peers, the catcher -- a prolific flipper -- doesn't mind discussing the gesture. "It's undeniable that the fans love it," he says. "The players are expressing for them. The act itself is not a bad thing." Hong played for the Bears during the 2007 KBO finals, when a hitter on the opposing team, Kim Jae-hyun, flipped his bat after a home run. I ask him if the celebration made him angry and he chuckles. "I felt like he really enjoyed the moment," he says. "It was like he was exploding! He was showing his energy so the fans would feel it."
Hong has a couple of explanations for why the bat flip came to be accepted here. First, the person who pioneered the move was Yang Jun-hyuk -- a living legend whose accomplishments legitimized his quirks. Second, Korean players are less likely to hurt one another on the field. "I have friends on all 10 teams," he says.
While the KBO has its own set of unwritten rules, most of which reflect the values of Korean society (if a pitcher accidentally buzzes an older hitter, he must take off his hat and bow), they aren't enforced with violent retribution. Takeout slides, recently banned in MLB, never existed here. Bench-clearing brawls are rare. Jee-ho Yoo, a sports writer with Yonhap News, says there are only a few dozen competitive high school baseball teams in Seoul, so "pretty much everyone knows everyone" in the KBO. "They don't want to hurt each other," he says. Yoo remembers an incident a few years ago when a foreign player on the Lotte Giants tore down the third-base line and slammed into the catcher. Fans were appalled.
Several players told me that before KBO teams began signing Americans in the late 1990s, they had no idea that flinging one's bat after a hit was a no-no overseas. They didn't even have a name for it. "I wasn't aware it was a 'bat flip' until a foreign player came here and pointed it out," Yang says. "The pitcher was trying to hit me with the ball. I didn't understand it."
Every KBO player I meet is aware that bat flips are taboo in MLB; some even describe them as "illegal." "American baseball is known to be very sensitive about it," says Lee Jae-won, a burly catcher on the SK Wyverns with a spry, confident flip. "They retaliate right away." When I explain that many people in the States actually love bat flips, he's surprised. "I thought the fans don't like it."
At first this seems curious, given all of the memes and fawning headlines that have cropped up in the U.S. in recent years. But when I email Dan Kurtz and ask him when his videos first went viral, he points me to two clips from 2013. One occurred when Choi Jun-seok, the enormous slugger, flipped his bat after a monster hit, then watched it go foul. The other happened when his teammate, Jeon Jun-woo, performed a flip on a ball caught at the warning track. I search for mentions of them online:
From Korea, One of the Worst Bat Flips Ever
Korean Baseball Player Celebrates Crushing Foul Ball
Baseball Bat-Flip Fails Are Quickly Becoming a Hilarious Epidemic in Korea
These stories spread in the States, then traveled back to the KBO, where some players began to wonder if they were, in fact, committing a grave offense -- or even worse, if they were being mocked. "It's never been a problem in Korea," Hong says. "The media made an issue out of it."
CHAN-HO PARK IS passing through Seoul and agrees to meet me at a wax museum in a posh neighborhood called Myung-dong, where he's scheduled to give a talk to some kids. Deep inside the museum, in an uncanny valley of Korean sports heroes, there's a vaguely unsettling facsimile of the legendary pitcher in a Dodgers uniform, grimacing and unfurling his arm. When the real Park -- who goes by Park Chan-ho in Korea, where surnames are listed first -- emerges from his event, he's wearing a Porsche polo shirt and smells like expensive soap. The next day, he's leaving to tape a reality show called Real Men, the premise of which involves attending boot camp with the Korean army.
Park, 43, started playing baseball at the same time as Yang, but instead of joining the KBO, he quit college and signed with the Dodgers. The pitcher, who was the first Korean ever to play for a major league team, says his transition was difficult at first. His teammates were befuddled when he bowed to the umpire; he was scolded, he says, when he asked a fellow Dodger to soap his back in the showers, a common practice in Korea. He arrived at the clubhouse hours before everyone else, as he was accustomed to more strenuous practices. "Playing in the amateurs in Korea -- they train hard," he says. "Then I go to the States ... and everyone's lazy!"
But by the time Park returned in 2012 to play one final year in the KBO, he had fully assimilated to American baseball, and certain elements of the Korean game, like the bat flips, took him by surprise. "I think the Korean league needs to show more respect," he says. "Batter needs to respect the pitcher. Pitcher needs to respect the batter. Winner respects the loser. Loser respects the winner. U.S. major leagues has that, you know?"
After spending 17 years pitching in the States, Park was put off by Korean baseball's celebratory culture. "When I played here with the Hanwha Eagles, I told my hitters and my teammates: 'We gotta calm down. We're not focusing. We're not here for the show. We're here to win.'"
Other Korean players who have spent time in the U.S. share Park's distaste for bat flips. Seo Jae-weong, a commentator who pitched for six years in the majors, tells me he was slightly perplexed by them at first. "Before I went to the States, it didn't occur to me," he says. "When I came back, it bothered me so much." Like Park, Seo had not played in the KBO before going to America.
In recent years, a new wave of Korean stars has taken a different path to the States, spending a few years in the KBO before switching leagues. Jung-ho Kang, a powerful third baseman, signed with the Pirates in 2015; Seung-hwan Oh, Byung-ho Park, Hyun-soo Kim and Dae-ho Lee all followed. Yoo, the sports writer, says the rise in power in the KBO and Kang's strong rookie season paved the way for other position players. "He opened up a lot of eyes about Korean hitters," he says.
Now, Yoo says, more players aspire to go to MLB, but when they make the transoceanic journey, they leave some of their old ways behind. Byung-ho Park, who was signed by the Twins last year, was famed for his high-flying flips, many of which were featured on Kurtz's site. But he forced himself to kick the habit when he arrived in the U.S. So did Kang. The Lotte Giants' Hwang Jae-gyun, a hard-hitting third baseman who hopes to lure the attention of American scouts, says he quit flipping last year. "The foreign players warned me, 'If you do that in MLB, you'll get beaned in the head,'" he says.
Some Korean players believe that Park, a first baseman and designated hitter who was demoted to the minors in July, might actually be struggling because of his altered approach. "He's consciously thinking about it and it's bothering his swing," says Hong, the veteran catcher. He impersonates a player taking a mighty stroke and then gingerly setting down his bat, almost like he's putting an infant to bed. "It sucks their confidence if they care too much," he says.
While bat flips haven't abated yet, most of the Korean players I meet agree that the act has become stigmatized in recent years. This past spring, a local cable network even staged a debate on the issue. One former player defended the custom on camera, but another KBO veteran took an anti-flip stance, arguing that hitters violate "proper etiquette" when they fling their bats. "Don't you think it would be better," he asked, "if the players didn't do it?"
ON THE DAY I attend a KT Wiz game in Suwon, it's 95 degrees and sunny, but fans are swarming the concourse in surf shirts and ponchos, their phones dangling around their necks in plastic cases. Halfway through the first inning, I find out why. A giant tube surfaces from the cheerleaders' platform, rising to the sky like a pipe in Mario Brothers. Once it's about 20 feet tall, the Wiz's cheermaster pops out, lifts a giant hose and starts spraying us with water. Six cannons below him shoot powerful jet streams, and a row of sprinklers goes off in the upper deck.
After about 15 minutes of this, I flee to the outfield, where I spot a tall white guy with a shaved head wearing a T-shirt that says "#humanweapon" on the front and "Ass Kickery 101" on the back. I look around and realize there are Americans everywhere -- young men and women in sandals and fatigues, soldiers from a nearby Army base. I sit next to an 18-year-old named Casey, an apple-cheeked blond kid from Florida who had never been overseas before enlisting. He says he rarely attended MLB games. "I think American baseball is a little boring," he explains. Suddenly, he puts his hands up and shrieks: "No. No. No."
I turn around, and a Korean child is pointing a water gun at us.
Early in my trip, one of the staffers for a KBO team told me he had been to an MLB game and it felt like visiting a temple. He meant it as a compliment, I think. But surrounded by dripping-wet fans shouting and dancing well into the ninth inning of a blowout loss, I can't help but see his description through a critical lens. This field isn't a house of worship; it's a place for celebration. "I hear fans saying to us: 'When I come to the field, I feel something opening,'" Hong says. "'It's the only time I can scream out my stress and open up and raise my voice.'"
St. John says the Korean stadium has become a safe space for self-expression and that baseball, once a symbol of foreign suppression, is now a locus of national pride. "The way the players behave on the field, the flips, how the fans get into the game ... the complex they used to have is gone," he says. "This is their big release."
In recent years, Korean baseball has become more like MLB. Several players and coaches told me the sport has changed for the better: Korean players are training with a greater emphasis on strength, and traditional hierarchies are being broken down. But they also noted that while KBO teams have a great deal to learn from their counterparts in the States, the reverse is also true. "In MLB, we're starting to lose our fan base -- it appears we're not doing very much to keep them," says Jerry Royster, a 16-year MLB vet and former Brewers manager who spent three years at the helm of the Lotte Giants. "In Korea, it was all about the fans."
On my last day in Korea, I travel across Seoul to the Gocheok Sky Dome to meet Daniel Kim, the commentator who told me I wouldn't understand bat flips until I visited the country. Kim, who is wearing owlish glasses and a vest and tie, leads me through the cool, artificially lit stadium, and we talk about the conversation we had earlier in the summer. "If you look at the act itself, it might not make sense," he says. "But if you come to a stadium and watch a full game ... as a fan, you really get into it. And the players feed off that energy. And it becomes a natural thing."
After we sit down in the stands, Kim offers an analogy. In the late '90s, Wal-Mart, which was expanding across the world at the time, opened a few megastores in Korea. Eight years later, the giant retailer gave up and left the country, having failed because it never tailored its strategy to local trends. "Just because something works in the States and other parts of the world doesn't mean it will work here," Kim says.
I ask if he thinks that will ever change -- if, in an age of rapid globalization, Korean, Japanese and American baseball will all merge into one sport, with the same rules and values. "I hope not," he says. "Obviously, things evolve, they change. But at the same time, you've got to do what works for you." The bat flip, he says, exemplifies this balance. It's a tiny gesture with outsized meaning, a nail that refuses to be hammered down.