Sunday, July 1, 2012


On the Very Definition of Insanity

Munhak Stadium, 2012
Munhak Stadium
Korea Professional Baseball
Incheon, South Korea
5:00 PM
Sunday, July 1, 2012

Outside of the Game:
Since the DMZ is closed on Mondays (and can one really close a demilitarized zone?), Sunday was the only day I had to go on a tour. The day before, I had picked a random tour company that had half-day tours and went with them mostly because they had at-hotel pickup instead of making me trek to some other location to start the tour.

Since I was switching out my hotel for the Seoul Guest House, I had to check out early and then leave my bag at the original hotel before swapping over to the guest house that evening. I grabbed some quick breakfast at the bakery in the hotel lobby, and waited for the tour bus, which showed up roughly on time.

We were in a small mini-van that was making a sweep of hotels to get us all to the main embarkation bus. This was the closest proximity I'd been with all English-speakers since I started the trip, and to be honest, it made me feel very claustrophobic. The people seemed nice enough and all, but just being around this many people who could understand me when I was speaking made me feel closed in.

We all got herded into the main bus at the meet-up point, and off we went for the short drive up to the DMZ proper. The not-so-little secret about the DMZ is its proximity to Seoul. Should a shooting war resume with North Korea, Seoul is a lost cause on the first day. It can be easily shelled from existing positions in North Korea, and even if it wasn't leveled by artillery fire, it would be over-run in a matter of hours. Knowing that you have several million crazed cousins less than an hour north of you that could wipe you from the face of the earth at any point may explain a lot of the drinking that goes on, at least in Seoul.

Dividing line
The end of it.

The first stop on the tour was "Freedom Bridge," which was the bridge where the last POWs were exchanged before the boarders were closed after the cease fire that remains in effect. There was an old train from the last rail exchange between north and south, and some vantage points where you can look into the DMZ itself. The barbed wire, mine warning stickers, and a lot of very serious-looking South Korean soldiers with very serious-looking assault weapons really sets a scene that seemed to be lost on most of the tourists happily snapping pictures in a war zone. Also incongruous was the small fair-sized amusement park that was just beyond the parking lot. Because when I think of family fun, I think of the active warzone between two bitter rivals.

Photo line
They're pretty serious about it.

The next stop was the 3rd infiltration tunnel, which is fairly self-explanatory. Over the years, the North Koreans have dug approximately 20-30 incursion tunnels into the DMZ to facilitate sneak attacks on the South. This is the third one they found, and they only have physically located a handful of the twenty or so they think exist based on the testimony of defectors from the North. This one has an amusing progeny in the art of fallback positions. When discovered, the North originally claimed that it was an incursion tunnel from the South to the North. When South Korean engineers pointed out the impossibility of the drainage situation if the tunnel was from the South, the North Koreans than painted the walls with coal dust and said they were just mining. Presumably, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Mine warning
They don't have possession issues.

They don't allow any photographs in the tunnel itself, and getting down to it involves an extensive walk down a huge ramp they built in for tourists, and then a hard-hatted duck walk through the tunnel. Given the contortions, and the humid air, and the extensive walking, there are warnings left and right about being prepared for this endeavor that were ignored by most of the tourists until they are halfway down the incursion tunnel and are slowly having heart attacks. There are several convenient places up at the top for you to collapse in a heap after you turn in your safety helmet. You also got a pretty good look at some of the heavily subsidized and protected farming villages in South Korea's part of the DMZ. Though literally the most dangerous place in the country, the farmland there is so rich that they went to the time and expense of de-mining the area and letting farmers live and work there tax-free, with a government stipend, and with a constant military guard. The pay is good, I suppose.

Usually the highlight of the tour is Dora Observatory, which is about as close as most civilians get to North Korea, and gives a good vantage out into the DMZ. Except when it has been raining all night and there is a fog out so thick you can barely see two feet in front of you, let alone into the valley below you. Even though the visibility was next to nothing, the soldiers were still stringent about enforcing a yellow "picture line" beyond which you aren't allowed to take photographs, presumably because you'd get picked off by North Korean snipers. Even though the visibility was non-existent, we got to sit through a little model and video show about what we would be seeing if there wasn't an impenetrable  fog, but I get the feeling it wasn't quite the same.

A little foggy

The last stop in the DMZ for the tour was Unification Station, a train station that the South Korean government optimistically built before the end of the Sunshine Policy to link up South Korea with the North and the rest of Asia. It currently sits as a symbol of... something or other.

While there were a few additional stops back in Seoul, the tour was supposed to be over at 1 PM, and it was already 1:30 PM before we even got to the first stop back in the capital. I still had to retrieve my luggage from my last hotel and get to my new guest house before heading off to get in my make-up game. I promptly ditched the tour and got back to the Sutton to grab my bag, and then, thankfully for the last time, dragged all of my crap across town. The trip itself wasn't very far, but the stairs and lack of escalators made it feel a whole lot longer.

By the time I got to the Seoul Guest House, I was drenched in sweat, and I had to grab a quick shower before I set off for the game. The guest house was only one subway stop away from my last hotel, so getting back out to Incheon was as straightforward as before, if still time consuming. I'm pretty sure I napped on the long stretch of nothing on the 1 Line on the way out. I actually made pretty good time, and got to the game with an hour before the start of the contest. A quick ticket purchase later, and I was in.

As I had to navigate back to the guest house in the dark, the game thankfully didn't go on for too long, and I managed to get out of the subway at a little before 10. In walking my way back to the guest house, I ran into the proprietor and his dog sitting out of the street socializing with other locals. He helpfully pointed me in the right direction, and I pretty much collapsed into sleep as soon as I got back to the room.

The Stadium and Fans:
Center to home, Munhak Stadium
Center field to home plate, Munhak Stadium

This was second repeat stop at a stadium for the trip, so there wasn't anything particularly new to find. It did seem as though the Green fair outside the stadium was an ongoing thing, as it was there before the game this night as well. In keeping with the Green theme, the bullpen car (which I got to see this time) was a tiny little electric number that made a golf car look manly in comparison. I also found out that the elevating boat in the stage gets used again during a late-inning event, but beside that, it was mostly the same. The crowd was much healthier this time out without the threat of rain, and again the cross-town Twins had a full contingent in place on the visiting side.

Hydraulic cheering

At the Game with Oogie:

Although my ticket agent wasn't fluent in English this time, I knew exactly what to say to get nearly the same seat as I had two days before, located right by the main home team stage. This time around it was more twenty-somethings than families, but it was more filled up and everyone was out to have a good time, as was par for the course at Korean games.

Before I went in this time, I saw someone in a sweatshirt from my college having some food. I assumed that he had done a study abroad there, but in talking to him, I managed to get across that he never went to the school, he was just wearing the shirt. And that was profoundly weirder than if it had been a small world moment.

The Game:
First pitch, Twins vs. Wyverns
First pitch, Twins vs. Wyverns

And for my last game in Korea, we got some divine justice of a sort. For making me trek the hour and half out to watch another game because of the only rain-out in the history of my trips in five countries, the Wyverns reaped the wind.

This was the match-up of the two-letters, as the LG Twins took on the SK Wyverns. The Twins went down in order in the first, while the Wyverns made a show of it. Two one-out singles and an error on the pick-up made it second and third. But a come-backer to the pitcher with the runner from third going on contact led to a rundown and second out, before a foul pop-up to third ended the inning with no score.

The Twins again went in order in the second, and the Wyverns only managed a lead-off walk, eventually erased in a double play in their half of the inning. The Twins finally broke through with a hit in the third, but nothing more came of it, while the Wyverns got two, two-out singles in the bottom of the third which they couldn't get across.

In the fourth, the Twins scattered two hits and the Wyverns only got one, moving the game along pretty briskly. Things would get longer in the fifth. The Twins got a lead-off walk that was bunted over to second. This was followed by a hit batsman, and then a grounder to first that couldn't quite make it into a 3-6-3 double play, leaving it first and third with two outs. The next Twins batter dumped one over the right-field wall, bringing in three runs with the homer to make it 3-0 Twins. The Wyverns scattered a hit and a walk in their half, to no effect.

Back-to-back one-out doubles in the top of the sixth brought another run across for the Twins, but two more outs quickly followed, leaving the score 4-0 Twins. The Wyverns squandered a lead-off single that went to scoring position on a wild pitch when the next three went in order. In the seventh, the Twins got a one-out single, and then after a fly to short, they got back-to-back singles to bring in another run, making it 5-0 Twins. The Wyverns started the bottom of the seventh with a hit batsman and a bunt single to make it first and second with no out, but a double-play and another fly out to short ended the threat.

The Twins went in order in the eighth, but the Wyverns finally came slightly alive. They started the inning with back-to-back home runs before going in order, making it a more respectable 5-2 Twins lead. In the ninth, the Twins got a hit batsman and a walk, but couldn't bring them around. The Wyverns decided to give it one more try in the last of the ninth. Two singles led off the inning, followed by a walk to load the bases. But the next batter grounded to the first baseman, who came home for the force out, leaving the bases loaded with one out. But the Twins pitcher knuckled down and got as strikeout and fly out to right to end the game, and my baseball in Korea, with a 5-2 Twins win.

The Scorecard:
Twins vs. Wyverns, 07-01-12. Twins win, 5-2.Twins vs. Wyverns, 07-01-12. Twins win, 5-2.
Twins vs. Wyverns, 07/01/12. Twins win, 5-2.

For my last game in Korea, they decided to work in some power. The three home runs were easily the most I saw on the trip, and the two back-to-back were obviously the only of those that I saw in Korea. It was also the game with the most extra-base hits as the three home runs were paired up with two doubles.

Other notables were a runner trying to score from third on contact in the first that got into a nifty little 1-2-5-3t run-down, and the "tour of the outfield" in the bottom of the sixth, where all the outs were on fly-outs to each of the outfielders, F-8, F-9, F-7. There were also three hit batsmen, in a game that was a little ugly.

The Accommodations:
Seoul Guest House
Seoul Guest House

When I had my days off in Japan for the last two years, I stayed at a traditional Japanese guest house, or ryokan, in Kyoto. It was a fun experience, and I wished I had more time to stay at that particular place. Korean has their own version of the traditional guest house, called a hanok. They are more one-floor affairs, with guest rooms all located around a central courtyard and common room. For most of the guest houses, you have your own small room with sliding doors, and you share all the other facilities (bathrooms, laundry, toilets, etc.). Most of them now have an option to rent rooms with a private bathroom, of which I decided to avail myself.

The main area of Seoul that still has these original hanoks is located between the two main castle complexes in the government area of town. There had been a "modernization" campaign that had resulted in many being torn down before someone recognized the value of the establishments. Most of them now exclusively reside in the castle area, which was one of the few to remain untouched from the original purging. Many of the largest or most well-established even have English Web sites, but reservations can still be problematic. Requests for reservations are mostly just emails to the proprietors that are answered (or not) with no regularity and sometimes with some language issues thrown in. It took me two or three tries to get a reservation set up at one, and the Seoul Guest House turned out to be the right bet.

Even though the Website offered pretty comprehensive directions, I managed to get myself tripped up on the way there by going the longest and most complicated route possible that completely comes at the well-placed signs in the wrong way. When I eventually got to the guest house, I had to walk up a small path to the entrance proper, which led to the courtyard, where I was greeted by the shaggy behemoth that was the proprietor's dog. His owner soon popped his head out to assure me that the wooly mammoth in front of me was in fact very friendly. It responded well to scratches behind the ear, and I would later find out it was a purebred Korean breed of some sort. As with all dogs in Korea, he was also very personable.


The owner quickly gave me the lay of the land, showing me to my advanced room, with its own bath and toilet. All the doors were sliding, so upon leaving your room, you padlocked it up with the provided device. On the other side of my room was the laundry/communal toilet, which was right next to the rabbit hutch, where a rather bored-looking coney eyed me with clear derision.

The main sleeping room came with a double futon, a lacquer clothing cabinet, refrigerator, TV, and air conditioning unit. It took me a little while to figure out how everything worked, but it was a fun sort of poking around. I was a little worried at how the bathroom/toilet would work, as it was a toilet, sink and a wall-hanging showerhead with a drain in the floor. It turned out to be very convenient, as you could shower yourself up and then go straight to the sink to finish your gussying, and then head right back out to your room to get dressed.

In the morning, with the sunlight filtering in through the thin paper door shades after a surprisingly good night's sleep on the futon, the effect was quite excellent.

On Wrapping This Bad Boy Up with Style

Monday, July 2, 2012
Seoul, South Korea

Outside of the Game:
This was my first day baseball-free since Jeju. After the rain make-up the night before, I had no baseball on the schedule. And this lack of focus tends to make these days a little on the non-productive side. It certainly started out that way, as I whittled away a good portion of the morning in my room enjoying the first good night's sleep in a while, coupled with the lack of any direct necessity of purpose.

I eventually roused myself out of stupor to head out to the Seoul morning. After grabbing some breakfast at a local restaurant, I headed towards the main Gyeongbokgung castle complex, which was right down the street from where I was staying. The Koreans have the good sense to not just close down every tourist attraction on the same day (usually Monday), and instead stagger it so about half are closed on Monday and half on Tuesday, which I thought was rather forward-thinking of them.

Changing of the Guards
Changing of the guards

I got to the castle right when they were doing the changing of the guard ceremony, which happens on the hour. The spectacle had attracted a large crowd of tourists, as the changing happens both in the front gate of the castle, as well as the inside of the massive courtyard. The ceremony for the sake of ceremony had its appropriate amount of pomp, but frankly the tourists seemed to enjoy it a lot more than I did, as I ducked out half way through to go into the castle itself.

This castle, the traditional seat of power and sovereignty for the Korean kingdom, had a long and sad history with the Japanese. Along with "and then Henry VIII tore it down" in England, "and then the prisoners were kept here by the British" in Ireland, and "and then the American bombed it" in Japan, we can add "and then it was destroyed by Japan during the occupation" in Korea as the most common phrases you will hear in relation to historical locations. During an earlier occupation, the Japanese burned the original castle to the ground. The Koreans then nearly bankrupted themselves in the 19th century rebuilding it, only to have the Japanese dismantle it again during their next occupation (under the pretense of needing the space for an exposition), and then, by the way, since the area had been cleared for the exposition, they were just going to put their colonial management building right here.

Not one if anything to give up on the rebuilding project, the Koreans have relatively recently torn down the old colonial building and have been restoring the location to its previous palace existence. The complex was extensive, including two museums on the grounds in addition to the palace and related buildings. One was a museum about the palace itself (which was closed Mondays) and one was a cultural arts museum (that was not). In the course of visiting the castle, I popped into the open museum, which details the development and explanation of the major elements is Korean culture and design. It was actually more interesting that it sounds, and they had an outdoor exhibit that recreated a Korean neighborhood from right around mid-century, including a comic book store. Go team old nerd.

Comic book store
50s comic book store

After walking around the castle and museum into the early afternoon, I walked back to the guest house to clean up, and I grabbed some pork cutlets at another local restaurant before heading out again.

On the agenda was visiting the largest Buddhist temple complex is Seoul, Jogyesa. I had originally looked into doing a short temple stay program as part of this trip. These are one-, two-, or half-day events where you actually stay at Buddhist temple and go through part of a monk's daily routine, as well as get an overview on Buddhism and do arts and crafts and whatnot. I couldn't make the logistics of any of the longer one- or two-day programs work out, and then, not knowing if I was going to need the day to go to a rain make-up game, I couldn't even commit to one of the half-day programs, since they all ended too late in the afternoon for me to be able to get to a game if necessary. Insert your own joke here about letting baseball trump spiritual enlightenment. The thought had occurred to me.

I still made my visit to the Jogyesa temple and paid my respects. It really can't hurt to cover your bases, and the temple itself was gorgeous. They even had a 500 year-old tree on the premises that had been brought over from China several hundred years ago. It's this kind of thing that puts events in perspective for me. As America was just being discovered by Europeans, this tree was already a going concern. I try and remember that when people are arguing about short-minded ridiculousness on the television.

Old tree
Old tree is old

After the temple, I went to the nearby Postal Memorial Hall, which detailed the rise of the modern postal system in Korea. I know how exciting that must sound, but I found it interesting, and when you go to Korea, you don't have to go there.

I went to Insadong next, a close-by shopping street that specializes in traditional cultural merchandise and the like. Now, those who know me know my intense aversion to all things shopping and shopping-related. But I did have to pick up some gifts for friends and people at work, plus there were numerous entertainers on the street, so it was an interesting enough place to be.


Plus there was a huge geek store smack dab in the middle of it. A gentleman has taken a rather extensive personal toy and pop culture items and turned it into an entire floor of display and commerce. He charges about $1.50 to get in (presumably to keep dangerous and dirty kids away from his toys), but it was well worth the price, as the store was a treasure of Asian animation, comics, and action figures. The only real challenge was figuring out what was for sale and what was for display only. I eventually walked out of there with some postcards and a 70s cardboard Korean baseball game.

Nerd store
Nerd store

And that was not all. Because at one end of the street was a batting cage. At first, it was difficult to figure out what the second-story building was. There was a mural of a Pittsburgh Pirate player on a wall next to some other more traditional sporting pictures from Korea. I was trying to work out what the heck it was when I heard the familiar "ping" of aluminum bat to ball. I remembered reading in some guide book about the existence of a batting cage around there, so I found the way up, and indeed, there a batting cage was. For about 50 cents you got twelve wacks at the balls in the cages of various speeds. Not being too great at metric conversion, but knowing how batting cages work, I started at the one second from the right, which should be the second-fastest. I handled that one fairly easily, so I headed over to the fastest cage and started to burn through money at a disturbing pace. The only thing that probably stopped me was the necessity to break a large bill to continue, so I managed to break myself away.

Batting cages
Batting cages

Also helping was the idea that I was going to a Korean steak restaurant that I found near my guest house for dinner. Because, really, when you're talking about how you ended up a trip to Korea, and you can answer with, "Well, I went to the batting cages and then had a steak," that's not a bad damn answer -- no matter where the trip is, for that matter.

The restaurant turned out to be a relatively new basement place that seemed to be run by some guys just out of college. The steak was delivered to the table in a cast-iron skillet along with its accouterments. He turned the steak when it arrived, and 30 seconds later, I had perfect medium rare. The steak came with the sides in the skillet and a free desert. And it all cost about $11. Sometimes the cheapness of Korea was really startling.

Well-exercised and fed, I went back to the guest house to get my bags in proper packed state and to get to bed as early as possible for my excursion home the next day.

The Accommodations:
I was at the Seoul Guest House again. After spending a leisurely morning there, I stopped in during the day several times to get out of the heat, catch a nap, or drop off things. Having the shower room was extremely useful as it let me grab a quick wash to get the stink off and then send me back into the world.

On Going Home, For Some Reason

Incheon International Airport
Incheon International Airport
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
New York, NY

Outside of the Game:
It seems somehow fitting that my last day in Korea would start so early. Because of my 10 AM flight, I had to grab the airport limousine bus at a little after six. I got to bed relatively early the night before, so I was functional, if not exactly happy. I made my final sweep of my room, dumped all my bags out onto the courtyard, locked up the room, and finding Ssari the dog looking at me half-interestedly from his spot by the door, I gave him a quick scratch and went on my way, dragging my luggage through the early-morning streets of Seoul.

I got to the stop a little early, which was good because the bus also arrived a little early and was gone long before its scheduled departure time. Most of the bus ride to the airport was a long nap, as my body decided to give up on all this consciousness thing, at least for a while.

Once I got to the airport, it was time for a proper British queue of a good half-hour to get checked in. Arriving as early as I did paid off again, as I was able to move to one of the last remaining exit isle seats for the flight back, ensuring that I at least would not be cramped beyond any recognition at the end of a half day in the air. I gave the airport a proper wander and bought some last gifts for people at work and some duty free soju for yours truly, then had breakfast at a buffet in one of the many service areas in the airport. I've got to say that having been around it twice now, Incheon airport gets top scores across the board. It's big, pleasant, spacious, and has a lot of amenities for travelers, such as free Internet areas, massage chairs, and kids play areas.

Even the security areas weren't oppressive. The line was quick-moving, and the security personnel were efficient and pleasant. Case in point: A Korean family was going through security ahead of me with their four- or five-year-old son, who decided to make a run for it at the metal detector while his parents were dealing with their bags on the conveyor belt. He joyously ran though, and when it made a beeping noise, he ran back through the other way to hear it again, where his parents quickly corralled him and started apologizing. Whereas at this point in the US, the entire family would be getting strip searched by an angry TSA agent, the security staff in Korea were just laughing and made the family go through the metal detectors properly. Imagine it: A measured and appropriate reaction to a minor incident of no great consequence. I once again wonder what has gone wrong with America that this sort of thing seems so surprising and out of the ordinary.

I killed some time at an Internet terminal until it was time to board the plane. We managed to do so in about ten minutes or so, and that included a separate bag pat down and picking up duty free items before boarding. I settled in to my exit row seat, agreed to help if the plane crashed, and stretched out my legs for the long haul. As an extra bonus, the only open seat on the plane was directly behind me, giving me some guilt-free reclining action.

Once we got to cruising altitude, I went onto the entertainment center, and lo and behold, Perfect Game was still in the rotation. I selected the movie and then fast-forwarded to point at which I stopped watching last time, right after the game in question had started. Both pitchers are perfect through three before the Tigers get on the board with a few solid singles, but the Giants pull ahead an inning later on a similar handful of hits and some aggressive baserunning that turn into two runs. As both pitchers start to get tired and affected by their various injuries, the opposing managers start ordering players to foul balls off and switching in batters and runners in an effort to tire the other pitcher out more quickly. Both teams sharing one bathroom (due to plumbing issues) leads to an ongoing sideshow of confrontations and fights for the duration of the game.

Then Baseball Movie Clichés 101 take over the game. Because of all the pinch hitting and running, the Tigers are forced to put the back-up catcher into the game. Seeing his father on TV wins back the respect of his son. It just so happens that he is the last batter up with two outs in the ninth inning. After spinning himself into the ground on his second strike, he looks at the picture of his family that he keeps in his batting helmet, and promptly hits a home run to tie the game. His joyous wife, apparently forgetting all the very real things wrong with their marriage, joyously gives out free beer to all her patrons.

Both pitchers continue going into extra innings, despite being on their last legs. Korean games back then were slated to end after fifteen innings, and the Giants pitcher doesn't realize this and goes back out to the mound, oblivious. This leads to an era of good feelings, as both teams and their fans cheer the opposing pitcher, leading to a handshake by both at the mound caught by the girl reporter. The only person angry was the Korean president, who apparently wanted a victor for PR purposes that weren't exactly clear.

So that's what happened there.

Most of the rest of the flight was an eleven-hour blur of napping, typing, eating, and watching movies. The flight home always seems to go faster than the flight out, mostly because I sleep a lot more due to utter exhaustion.

Eventually, I was ejected dejectedly into the New York morning. Due to the spiffy time difference, my flight left at 10:00 AM and landed at 10:30 AM, so I was just about as jet lagged as humanly possible. My entire body felt like an abused piñata. I surprisingly cleared customs nearly immediately despite acting like a drunk, drugged monkey. This yin was yanged when getting my main carry on, which I had to check again because of weight issues. It stands to reason that there always has to be a last bag to get delivered, and this day, I picked the short straw. Blurry and agitated, I waited and waiting for my bag to show up, with increasingly desperate thoughts about lost bag claims flowing through my head, when my bag triumphantly came into view right before they shut down the conveyors for the last time.

This is what I get for being the first person to check a bag for the flight, I guess. But that little bit of agitation was surely worth showing up early enough to get an exit row seat and have working legs at the end of a 13-hour flight.

It was all rosepetals after that, and it was just a matter of clearing customs, finding my father, and then collapsing awkwardly in his car for the ride back to my apartment.

The Accommodations:
Home, sweat home, and no, that was not a typo. My central air unit had flaked out while I was gone, and it was 90 or so in my apartment once I returned. It took most of the afternoon to get the temperature down to something resembling livable. The good news is that I was too jet-lagged to remember most of the day. Indeed, I have documentary and physical evidence that certain things happened that day (a receipt from the bank, groceries in my freezer) that I otherwise have no working memory of. I can assume, at least, there were no fatalities.


Korea loot
Korea loot

And so it goes.

This started with seeing a game a day in America, driving between cities each day. And then a plane flight or two were worked in. And then a flight every day. And then a game a day in foreign countries with trains each day. And then with planes worked in. Now, it is becoming pedestrian to knock off entire leagues with trains and planes in one vacation.

I'm not sure where this is going next. There are three more professional leagues in Asia, but my next target is going to be limited by where I can get English game schedules a) at all and b) early enough to let me plan this kind of trip. The goal is China, but we'll have to see the logistical  possibilities.

Baseball map

2012 Korea