Geelong’s ABL team zeroes in on debut game
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Geelong-Korea’s Jin-Woo Kim sizes up the Geelong Baseball Centre.
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.