STRIKE ZONE

Gee­long’s ABL team ze­roes in on de­but game

Geelong Advertiser - - TV GEELONG ADVERTISER TV GUIDE - Damien RACTLIFFE damien.ractliffe@news.com.au

For­mer Korea Base­ball Or­gan­i­sa­tion star Jin-Woo Kim looms as one of Gee­long-Korea’s most im­por­tant play­ers head­ing into Thurs­day night’s sea­sonopener against Syd­ney in the Aus­tralian Base­ball League.

BASE­BALL ex­pan­sion into Gee­long will not only forge a new fron­tier in Aus­tralian sport, but put our re­gion onto tele­vi­sions all over Korea, ex­pos­ing it as a tourism des­ti­na­tion.

It’s in­no­va­tive, brave and risky, im­port­ing an en­tire pro­fes­sional team from an­other coun­try and bas­ing them in Aus­tralia to help ex­pand a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion.

A lot of hard work be­hind the scenes has gone into get­ting Gee­long-Korea off the ground and while the fruits of labour might take months or years to re­alise, in just five days, the first ball will be pitched to start an en­tirely re­shaped ABL.

THE CITY

Three re­gional cities were con­sid­ered for ABL ex­pan­sion — two of them in NSW — but Gee­long won the race thanks to State Govern­ment sup­port to help place the re­gion on the tourism map.

Min­is­ter for Tourism and Events John Eren has ar­guably never had to com­bine his two port­fo­lios like he has for this project.

“There’s an au­di­ence of at least 10 mil­lion peo­ple in Korea that will be view­ing th­ese games, so hope­fully they’ll put it on the bucket list to come to Gee­long and that’s what it’s all about,” Mr Eren said.

“It’s about in­spir­ing those kids that want to em­u­late their stars on the field. This is about sport and tourism work­ing well for Gee­long.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t be in­no­va­tive in the way you do th­ese things, you miss out. That’s the one thing about Vic­to­ria; we are the sport­ing cap­i­tal and a lot of peo­ple want to be part of that ac­tion.”

Gee­long also boasts a di­a­mond at Waurn Ponds that has re­quired lit­tle up­grad­ing to meet ABL stan­dards.

Mr Eren de­scribes the po­ten­tial fi­nan­cial gains for lo­cal busi­nesses as “sig­nif­i­cant”.

“Not only will we have peo­ple from other parts of the na­tion to come and watch th­ese games but other parts of Vic­to­ria to book up the ho­tel rooms and restau­rants and the like, and we’re hop­ing there’ll be some in­ter­na­tional vis­i­ta­tions as a re­sult of this,” he said.

THE TEAM

One of the key sign­ings for Gee­long-Korea is the ap­point­ment of coach Dae-Sung Koo, a for­mer ABL player with Syd­ney Blue Sox for four sea­sons, be­fore stay­ing on as a pitch­ing coach.

Like Kevin Sheedy to the in­au­gu­ral GWS Gi­ants, Koo is re­garded as a leg­end in his home coun­try, hav­ing played for years in the Korean Base­ball Or­gan­i­sa­tion, a win­ner of the league’s most valu­able player, and was also on the New York Mets’ ros­ter for one sea­son in Ma­jor League Base­ball.

In 2000, he also won a bronze medal with the South Korean base­ball team at the Syd­ney Olympic Games.

“He’s a very ex­pe­ri­enced leader and well known to Aus­tralian base­ball as well,” ABL chief ex­ec­u­tive Cam Vale said.

“He will bring a pro­file to the team back into Korea as well, so the ex­pec­ta­tions in Korea are very high — I just came back from there last week.”

The team is head­lined by for­mer KBO pitch­ers Jin-Woo Kim, Jae-Gon Lee and JinYong Jang.

In con­tin­u­ing with the GWS com­par­isons, the 25-man squad is made up of for­mer stars com­ing to­wards the end of their ca­reers, and ris­ing stars look­ing to put their name onto the sport­ing stage.

How they’ll go from a win­loss per­spec­tive re­mains to be seen.

“I’ve heard ev­ery­thing from they’re go­ing to steam­roll through to strug­gle,” Vale said.

“I think the an­swer will be they’ll be very, very com­pet­i­tive. They’ll win more than their fair share of games and be right in there.

“The big chal­lenge will be ac­cli­ma­tis­ing and play­ing in Aus­tralia over the 12 weeks.

“They could get much stronger as they go and get used to the con­di­tions. They’re train­ing every day, there’s a re­ally good pos­si­bil­ity they’ll get stronger and stronger dur­ing the sea­son. That’s one of the great un­knowns and one of the ex­cit­ing parts.”

THE SPORT

Base­ball re­mains a niche sport in Aus­tralia, but like Gold Coast and GWS ex­pand­ing into ‘for­eign’ re­gions, so too is Gee­long-Korea launch­ing in untested wa­ters.

Aus­tralia is cur­rently ranked eighth in the world at men’s base­ball, while Korea is the third best coun­try be­hind Amer­ica and Ja­pan.

Just six teams made up the ABL last sea­son — Ade­laide Bite, Bris­bane Ban­dits, Can­berra Cavalry, Mel­bourne Aces, Perth Heath and Syd­ney Blue Sox. But this sea­son, Gee­long-Korea and Auck­land Tu­atara join to add an in­ter­na­tional flavour to the comp.

Games are held Thurs­day, Fri­day, Satur­day ( 7pm) and Sun­day (1pm) over con­sec­u­tive days with the host club play­ing against the vis­it­ing club in a four-match se­ries.

Vale says one of the key in­di­ca­tors on whether this ex­pan­sion is a suc­cess will come from the growth in ju­nior base­ball num­bers and the Gee­long- Korea play­ers are ex­pected to have a hands-on role in run­ning clin­ics over the sum­mer hol­i­days.

“It’s fair to say the first few weeks there here is re­ally about set­tling in, train­ing and hav­ing a very strong base­ball fo­cus. But as we head to­wards Christ­mas and es­pe­cially com­ing into the third, fourth and fifth home se­ries into that holiday pe­riod, ab­so­lutely,” Vale said.

“They picked Gee­long be­cause they want to be in a city that doesn’t have a team in the league — as we heard to­day, they want to be big­ger than Syd­ney — and they want to grow the game in this part of Aus­tralia.

“Ex­pos­ing young­sters to the game this year is go­ing to be a huge op­por­tu­nity; the ex­cite­ment of base­ball, a good chance to take a base­ball home, en­gag­ing and see­ing a re­ally high in­ter­na­tional stan­dard of base­ball will lead to more kids play­ing.

“But that’s also the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Base­ball Vic­to­ria and

Base­ball Aus­tralia to do what other sports do, and that’s use fan en­gage­ment to in­crease par­tic­i­pa­tion.”

THE FANS

Base­ball is a sport for fam­i­lies, com­pa­ra­ble to Big Bash cricket, with fan en­gage­ment nearly more im­por­tant than what’s hap­pen­ing on the di­a­mond.

Al­ready 250 peo­ple have signed up as mem­bers for Gee­long-Korea, giv­ing them guar­an­teed en­try to 20 games at the Waurn Ponds base­ball cen­tre for just $75 — that’s $3.75 a game.

It’s a sport that will test the senses — the smell of hot dogs and grilled corn on the cob, the sounds of or­gans and air horns, the feel­ing that at any time the ball can land in your mitt for yours to take home.

For adults, it will mean a sum­mer night on the hill with food trucks and craft beers and ciders with base­ball in the back­ground — the per­fect date night or the en­gag­ing Sun­day af­ter­noon for the fam­ily.

More peo­ple at­tend base-

ball games than any other sport in Amer­ica and it’s be­cause some­thing is al­ways hap­pen­ing at the base­ball, on and off the ball­park.

“Build­ing a fan base is go­ing to be im­por­tant and test­ing the market too — is this a mem­ber­ship model

market or is it an event-type, go to a cou­ple of games a year? We’re bring­ing a very new con­cept to the City of Gee­long and again in that con­text of a start-up team,” Vale said.

“Our fo­cus is to re­ally en­gage as many peo­ple as we can dur­ing this sea­son, whether it’s one game or see­ing train­ing.

“It is dif­fer­ent, we get that, but it’s de­lib­er­ately named Gee­long-Korea. It’s a team that is to rep­re­sent the team of Gee­long and it’s also rep­re­sent­ing the coun­try of Korea.”

THE FI­NAL WORD

This is an event to get around, if not for the in­trigue of 25 Korean base­ballers rep­re­sent­ing our re­gion, then sim­ply for the op­por­tu­nity to get out of home and take ad­van­tage of what the sum­mer sport has to of­fer.

Gee­long as a whole will ben­e­fit from the po­ten­tial tourism dol­lars that this team will gen­er­ate. Eyes from all over the globe will be on this ex­per­i­ment and the re­gion must em­brace be­ing a des­ti­na­tion city.

Pic­ture: PETER RISTEVSKI

Gee­long-Korea’s Jin-Woo Kim sizes up the Gee­long Base­ball Cen­tre.

Pic­tures: PETER RISTEVSKI, MIKE DUGDALE

RIGHT AT HOME: Star player Jin-Woo Kim, above, warms up at the Gee­long Base­ball Cen­tre. FAR LEFT: Gee­long-Korea’s coach­ing staff with head coach Dae-Sung Koo, cen­tre, as play­ers get a feel for their home base.

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