For Casey and I, springtime in Korea means two things, baseball and hiking. We’ve already gotten a few mountains under our belt this year, so it’s about time to add some baseball to this blog.
We started the 2014 season on a high note by traveling down to Gwangju for a weekend series between the KIA Tigers and our favorite Lotte Giants. The trip was especially exciting because the Tigers are playing in a brand new stadium, replacing the dump next door that had been their home for the past thirty years or so. Other than Incheon’s Munhak Stadium, KIA Champions Field is the only ballpark in the KBO that comes anywhere close to what MLB teams have been putting up in recent years. It’s big, it’s modern, it seats a whole lot of people, and all the seats face in the right direction, so all else aside it’s a decent place to spend the afternoon.
Before the Saturday game, excitement in our group was high. We took a long, traffic-filled bus ride down to Gwangju in the morning and got into town in time to dump our bags at a hotel and head straight to the park. The walk from the bus terminal approaches the stadium along a stream, offering an unimpeded view of Champions Field. It’s an impressive structure from the outside and it looks even bigger than it is because the old Mudeung Stadium is still squatting in its shadow surrounded by trash. Unlike its predecessor, the outside of Champions Field is clean and well stocked with concessions, statues, bike racks, and a bustling pro shop selling jerseys by the dozens. From just beyond the wall lining the grassy outfield bleachers, you can grab some chicken and a beer and people watch without even buying a ticket for the game.
Having found our friends and secured our tickets, we all headed inside. The entrance gates are located on the second floor of the stadium and open right onto the main concourse above the first tier of seats. Upon entering Champions Field, it becomes fairly obvious that speed, rather than luxury or maybe even planning, was a priority in the construction. The place only took two years to put up, and it’s fairly obvious in the lack of any effort to conceal or spruce up the concrete that surrounds you wherever you go.
For the Saturday game, we had great seats about twenty rows up behind the first base dugout. Everything about them was perfect. Maybe the most surprising aspect of the new park is the lack of open seats. Most KBO parks have large sections marked as ‘freedom seats,’ offering fans cheap tickets and their choice of seats within designated areas. Every seat in KIA Champions Field, however, is numbered and corresponds to a single ticket. Ushers even attempted to check tickets on the way into the seating areas for the first inning of the game. On Sunday, we sat in the upper deck above the third base line and even there the fans made a point to locate the right seat.
We were lucky enough to see two good games, although the Saturday affair was a bit depressing as Giants fans. Having won 20-8 on Friday night (a true Korean baseball game if there ever was one), the Giants only managed three hits on Saturday, failing to plate anyone in a 3-0 loss. Casey and I got a win on Sunday, however, so our Giants record for the season is at a respectable 1-1. Again, the seats were great, the field is respectably well maintained for KBO standards, the games were fun, and we had a great time with friends both new and old.
There was something about Champions Field that, at least for me, was a bit soulless. It’s a beautiful, modern baseball stadium with none of the luxuries that make modern baseball stadiums so nice. The biggest fault is the bathrooms. I’m guessing that the entire place has about eight men’s bathrooms, each with 5-6 urinals. To make matters worse, one of the urinals in the bathroom is child-sized with a robot head on top that lights up as you pee. I had to use it three times because I didn’t want to wait in the lines that snaked out of the bathroom and down the hall (and because it’s a robot and that’s just awesome). Long story short: if you don’t have a huge bladder plan on missing decent portions of the game as you wait in line.
The food options were also a tad lackluster. There are enough Ministops (convenient stores transformed into basic concession stands) to keep the beer runs short, but as far as actual food goes the choices were limited. You can get mediocre fried chicken or pizza (which, in a nice touch, is delivered hot to your seat), but other than that you’re pretty much out of luck. Minus a few Korean snack items, there seemed to be nothing of note when it came to concessions. This isn’t a huge deal, but compared to Daejeon’s aging stadium, which offers all kinds of food, it’s a bit sad.
Extra goodies/entertainment was the other area where a real lack of foresight was fairly obvious. Although it’s early in the year and I’m sure the Tigers will install more and more opportunities for non-game related amusement as the years go by, so far there’s nothing. The field is beautiful and the stadium is clean, but if you’re stuck watching a blowout there’s nothing to distract you. They could at least give us a batting cage or speed radar so we can at least watch drunk dudes try and impress their unimpressed girlfriends.
Overall, KIA Champions Field is a nice addition to the current state of ballparks in Korea. Korean baseball is always fun and being able to enjoy it in a nice new stadium is a rare perk at this point in the KBO’s history. Hopefully something will be done in the next few months or years to spruce it up a bit, but the bathroom problem looks perpetual. Without question, however, it’s a massive step up from the old Tigers field and well worth a visit.
Get to Gwangju from anywhere via bus or train. From the Gwangju express bus terminal, exit the front of building and head right. Just beyond Shinsegae Department store, which will be on your right, you’ll reach a large four-way intersection with islands at each corner. Turn left onto this street and head straight for a kilometer. The stadium will be visible for much of the walk and you won’t miss it. If you don’t feel like walking, hop on Pungam 16, Ilgok, 38, or Jiwon 151. Coming from the train station is just as easy. After exiting the station, turn right at the roundabout and walk straight down the big road for a little more than a kilometer. The stadium will be on your left. Again, if you’re running late buses from Gwangju Station to the stadium are plentiful: Ilgok 89, Bongseon 27, Jiwon 151, or Songjeong 98.