By the close of the 2nd inning on Thursday, the long suffering Hanwha Eagles fans were facing the prospect of a record being broken and, unusually for them, in their favour.
They’d waited 2083 days to sweep the KIA Tigers, defending KBO champions. And they were doing it in style. Hector Noesi, KIA’s 2 million dollar pitcher, had been spectacularly lit up. The Tiger carcass was lying on the floor and the Eagles feasted on it all night.
The damage closed at 14-5. Hanbat Baseball Park rocked in a way the Daejeon public haven’t seen for an eternity. After 6 years of traveling to Hanbat, it was the first defeat I’d experienced as a Tigers fan. The cosy, intimate feel of the ballpark had always made it stand out from the rest. But on Thursday, it was just different.
Since the league expanded from 8 to 9 and then 10 teams, Hanwha have been a disgrace. This is how they have finished the last 6 seasons: 8th, 7th, 7th, 9th (bottom), 9th (bottom) and 8th (bottom). That’s despite picking up a very sizeable fee from the LA Dodgers for Ryu HyeonJin and reinvesting that in expensive free agent signings such as Jeong GunWoo, Lee YongGyu, Bae YongSu and Kwon Hyuk. All four had collected championship medals with their former teams.
The Eagles did not feature in any conversations for play-off positions and the season is far too young to be making sweeping statements about good they can be based on one series versus the Tigers. However, Hanwha fans should start to feel more comfortable with a new coaching team and some savvy recruitment.
Jared Hoying follows Felix Pie and Wilim Rosario as another excellent field players selected by the club. Most KBO teams will seemingly settle for 1 quality pick up from 3. At the time of writing, Hoying was batting .420 and owned the league best 1.340 OPS whilst sitting top 10 for RBIS, runs scored, home runs, WAR and stolen bases. Quality all around.
And then there’s infielder Ha JuSeok who looks like he could go on to be a franchise player for this team. Keeping Lee YongKyu fit is crucial. The centerfielder is still the lead off master in this league and there’s no player in the country better at working pitch counts.
Hanbat Baseball Stadium
And this all got me thinking about 2 things. Firstly, how brilliant would it be if the Eagles made their first post season since 2007? And, how much will we miss Hanbat if the club follows the lead set by rivals across the land? If the day comes when the gates close for the final time, the league will have lost a little bit of what makes it so thrilling.
Nothing about Hanbat makes sense. I’d love to meet the person responsible for the quirky alterations that give this old stadium a new vibe. I’m convinced it can only be one individual. There’s no way 2 people exist with this level of imagination.
The creaking exterior walls have been covered with blockbuster modern signage. “Break the frame” is the motto accompanying the redesign. Inside, seats back against a line of tables that resemble a kitchen worktop. The outfield is a total mystery with tables and chairs resembling an authentic American diner. Hanbat is the only ballpark in Korea I know of where you walk around the entire stadium inside without having to climb stairs or jump over railings.
As you make your way to the ballpark from downtown or either KTX station in the city, there’s no real sign of the stadium structure, other than the giant floodlights. The stands are small enough to be hidden by the local buildings. It resembles a lower league Spanish football stadium, nestled amongst markets, restaurants and houses.
Even the official name is utterly bizarre. Hanwha Life Insurance Eagles Park.
New ballparks and new domes
So why the sudden nostalgia? Well, the new season had barely begun in March when the Busan-based Lotte Giants announced that plans were being drawn up for a dome with a sliding roof. The new ballpark won’t be finished until 2026, but it follows the city of Seoul’s plans to move Doosan Bears and LG Twins out of Jamsil Stadium and into a new dome of their own.
Just down the coast from Busan sits the port city of Masan, home of the expansion NC Dinos. The Dinos will be moving into a new arena next season, in the same neighborhood as their current home.
These clubs are following a trend. Baseball’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years and clubs are deciding that their old, dilapidated, municipal ballparks are not fit for the 21st century.
In recent seasons, KIA Tigers, Samsung Lions and Nexen Heroes have all uprooted from their traditional, and some would say intimate, bases to magnificent structures that absolutely improve the league’s international reputation.
The kt wiz in Suwon have invested in an extensive face lift meaning their stadium looks virtually unrecognizable from when it was used as the home of the Hyundai Unicorns, the former tenants. There’s even a giant swimming slide in right outfield.
The one place which stands alone, at least for now, is Hanbat Stadium in Daejeon. The Hanwha Eagles have been playing here since 1986. It is such a wonderfully unique park that should the Eagles eventually decide to upgrade, the KBO will lose something very special, and valuable.
There’s no doubting that in an age when sporting clubs and organizations need more bums on seats than ever before, having an attractive league and a modern new stadium to play in are absolutely vital.
Competition from across the board is so strong now that clubs simply can’t afford to stand still. Ballparks need to be able to cater for every type of fan who walks through the turnstiles. These include hard-core/dedicated fans, families, the work night out crew, daytrippers who don’t really care who wins and, the new phenomenon, bandwagoners. Does Hanbat? Maybe not.
And this is where making the playoffs comes in. I doubt there’s a fan in this league who would begrudge the Eagles and their fans just one shot at the big time. The atmosphere at Hanbat, if they got to host a game, would be electric. You’d probably would never get a ticket.
I met long-suffering Eagles fan Virgil Hodges for the podcast. The interview was only seven minutes long but the roar of the crowd as they tagged on more runs was very evident. Background cheering dominated the recording.
This is a stadium which offers something entirely different. It really is the last of the old guard. If the Eagles do become a force in this league again, relocation will be inevitable. So enjoy Hanbat while you can.