If you visit a Nexen Heroes game in South Korea, you will notice one particular fan that stands out. That fan would be Ted Smith, and he is becoming famous in Korea. Ted has becoming a performer who helps lead the cheering for the fans at the game which is a big part of the experience of baseball in Korea.
Ted took the time to sit down and answer some questions for us. So let’s see what Ted has to say about performing for the baseball crazed Korean fans.
What was your history with baseball and/or performing prior to coming to South Korea?
Baseball is not a very popular sport with my generation of Canadians, so growing up where I did, I had very little appreciation of the game before I went to college. I minored in Japanese and spent my summers interning at a firm in Tokyo, and it was there that I got involved with a Seibu Lions cheering club and became a sort of baseball addict. After that I started doing baseball tours every summer to various locales all over Asia and North America.
What was your initial thought the first time you came to a South Korea baseball game?
My first game in Korea was in the summer of ’10 between the LG Twins and the Hanhwa Eagles at Jamsil stadium. To be honest I was shocked at how empty the stands were, even for a weeknight. I kept wondering why they had these big beautiful stadiums if there was nobody to fill them with, right up until I saw my first game on a weekend and then I started to wonder if Koreans had never heard of a “fire code”. The cheering culture is very similar to that of Japan’s as far as the level of organization and use of cheering songs. But what’s really unique to Korea is the presence of digital PA equipment and the cheerleaders. In a sense the cheering itself is a lot more performative, compared to Japan where the “cheering brigade” sets up behind all the fans in the outfield bleachers and the focus is on the game. The Korean brigade tries very hard to engage the fans face-to-face and add to the spectacle. I really like that, it makes for a more diverse, theatrical experience at the ballpark.
Why did you adopt the Nexen Heroes as your team to perform for?
It was more like Nexen adopted me. Initially I was just attending games at Mokdong because it was the stadium nearest to my house in Singil, Seoul. After long I ingratiated myself with a group of the hard-core Nexen fans, and they welcomed me into their community with open arms and started to invite me out for drinks after games or to travel with them on road trips. I guess the real appeal of Nexen baseball for me was their indomitable fighting spirit. As both an athlete in high school and as a team manager in college I was more often than not on the weakest team in the league. I knew exactly what those guys were going through, and I always admired how they never gave up. They showed a lot of guts last season: scoring late inning runs, trying to fight back from huge deficits, putting out raging fires from the bullpen, and all the while still managing to look like they were having fun doing it. That inspired me to get on my jersey and stand up and get loud for them; let them know how much I appreciated their effort.
When did you first get up on stage and what was it like?
It was the second inning at a game at Hanbat Stadium, there were about two dozen Nexen fans there with me, and about half as many again Hanwha fans in the section immediately in front of the cheering stage. When I got up there everything stopped suddenly and I saw all these faces looking back at me smiling the way a parent does when his child’s on stage at a Christmas pageant. I think everyone who didn’t know me was really confused about who I was and what I was doing, but as soon as I raised the whistle to my mouth everyone (Hanwha fans included) joined in and cheered with me. I was really nervous because I’d never done anything like that in a foreign language, but at the same time it was exhilarating to have a small army of people at your command and to be able to direct their energy at whatever you wanted. Excuse the grandiose comparison, but it made me feel kind of like a rock star.
What was the initial reaction fans had toward your performing?
In Mokdong stadium, I went from being completely anonymous to instantly recognizable. The week after my first performance people would stop and point and say “That’s him, that’s the guy!” Total strangers would walk up and offer me food and drinks. People started asking to take pictures with me. I guess what surprised me the most though is other cheering groups somehow got a hold of my contact information and start calling me to ask if I could lead the cheering at their next outing.
Have you performed with the Heroes squad on stage?
In a sense, yes. At my first Nexen game in 2010, I was sitting down by the stage and I got chosen to participate in a dance contest and I was partnered up with a cheerleader and I won a six-pack of sikhye. Since I started performing on the road I was invited to dance again with the cheerleaders once last year, but I’ve never actually gotten up and lead. I’m hoping that one day I might have the honor, but I have a long way to go until I could actually compete with professional cheerleaders in this league.
What has been the reaction of the players? What about fans of other teams?
The players have been incredibly gracious towards me. They often stop and say hi to me when entering or leaving the stadium. It’s really weird to think that they all know me by name. Kang Byung-Sik, Son Seung-Lak, Jung Soo-Sung, and even Kim Byung-Hyun have all said really nice things about me in interviews. I’ve looked up to guys like them for my entire life, and for them to turn around and say they’ve taken inspiration from me is an incommensurable honour. The player’s families have also been more than generous to me. I got really sick back in April and a player’s mom took me to the hospital and saw that I got taken care of. Working in Korea has taken me really far away from my family, and having this much acceptance from the Heroes Family has helped a lot with the home-sickness.
As for fans of other teams, they’ve been more than just tolerant of me, I’ve generally found them to be very accepting and encouraging too. The one exception is Sajik stadium. I’ve been assaulted, pelted with chicken, and had some of my equipment stolen by overzealous (and often intoxicated) Lotte fans. That only encourages me to cheer harder the next time though.
Have you performed at any other sporting events in Korea? If so, how did it compare to baseball?
Yes, I’m the unofficial cheerleader of the Anyang Halla Ice Hockey club as well. Hockey is still a low profile sport in Korea so the scale is much smaller and the cheering culture is not as developed as it is in baseball. There’s no P.A. equipment, we just go out there with a couple drums and make all of the noise by ourselves (in that sense, I guess it’s no different then Nexen road games). On the whole, Baseball and Hockey have completely different paces and dynamics and the difference in cheering styles reflects that. Baseball cheering is very regimented: there’s a lot of routines and traditions, and a predictable order to the cheering songs. Hockey cheering is a lot more impromptu. There are certainly different songs for different game situations, but things change so quickly out on the ice one has to keep a very close eye on the game in order to match the cheering to the action.
Do you have any future plans for Korea or elsewhere as far as performing goes?
I’m not sure exactly, ever since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to work as an entertainer. I think that right now I have a really good opportunity in front of me so I need to stay in Korea and see where it leads me. I also speak Japanese fluently so I could also see myself doing something similar in Japan in the near or distant future. Who knows really? One thing’s for sure, I wanna stay as close as possible to the Heroes for the future.
Eric Bynum is Managing Editor here at BaseballdeWorld. He spent three years as an ESL teacher in South Korea, and is now working on his master's degree in history with a focus on baseball and WWII. He has played and/or written about baseball for the past 30 years and is an avid Atlanta Braves fan.