Presidents and Unicorns: A Scout’s Take on the President’s Cup in Korea by Aaron Shinsano

Aaron Shinsano is a baseball scout based out of Korea, as well as the co-founder of the influential Asian baseball blog East Windup Chronicle.

When I think of scouting the President’s Cup in Korea, as I have each of the last four years, I think of one image: me, sitting with a frozen bottle of water between my legs and holding another one on the back of my neck as I watch games and try to take notes.

Last year, I got what I thought was a heat rash around my groin. It turned into something more like athlete’s foot, and was itchy and at times very painful. Made it hard to sleep. It lasted well into October.

The hotel I stayed at last year was of the Japanese business hotel variety. Kind of like a dormitory with thin walls and floors. Chinese exchange students ran up and down the hallways well into the night. On the second night I poked my head out the door and yelled at them. One boy stopped cold and did an about face. He looked terrified. He saluted me, turned back the other way and went in his room, quietly closing the door behind him. About a minute later my phone rang. Just once. Then giggling down the hall.

The President’s Cup includes every one of the 50-plus high school baseball teams in Korea and usually lasts two weeks. There are four first round games every day for the first six days, at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and and 6 p.m. The second round follows in the same fashion, so that’s 10 days, four games a day. The “sweet sixteen” round (my term, not theirs), happens over the next two days, again, four games a day. The final eight and final four are two games a day for three days, then the final on the 17th day of the tournament. That is, if there are no rainouts. There usually are.

The tournament takes place in Suwon, a non-descript satellite city about an hour south of Seoul. Landmarks include a protective wall in the style of The Great Wall, built in the 18th century, and one of the few remaining full-on red light districts in Korea.

But for eight years there was glory in Suwon.

But for eight years there was glory in Suwon, as it played host to the KBO’s Hyundai Unicorns, who won the championship no less than three times in that span. Hyundai didn’t renew its 10-year sponsorship deal after the 2007 season, so after changing sponsors the team moved to Seoul proper and became bar-none the worst franchise in the league. Today there is no team in Suwon, and the stadium is falling into disrepair.

Due to the positioning of the structure, the seats get an inordinate amount of sun during the day after 10:30 a.m. The paint on the roof and dugouts that matched the Unicorns green and gold has faded. Year by year I noticed bigger patches of brown in the outfield grass, until last year, when it was finally replaced by a cheaper, yellow crab grass. Pigeons have made nests where PA speakers once were.

Sometimes, as I sit in a humid daze watching the third game of four, I try to imagine a scene of the Unicorns winning a championship on that field — the stadium full of screaming fans, players on the field in tears, and a guy dressed in a unicorn costume falling to his knees, cheerleaders ecstatic behind him, his brown human arms stretched skyward in exaltation, perfectly in line with his bright stuffed gold horn.

The high school games usually proceed in an orderly manner, appropriately sped up or slowed down by the size of the umpire’s strike zone and nagging of the hitters to hurry up between innings. If in a real rush, he’ll push the catcher down into his crouch following the warm up throw to second.

The tables behind home plate where the scouts sit are made of metal. I always mean to bring an egg with me, because I’m sure I could fry one there. Once 10:30 a.m. hits, the tables start to heat up, and by 1 p.m. they’re too hot to touch. I even call them “skillet seats,” to myself. I think I mentioned that concept to another scout, but it hasn’t caught on.

Another structural problem I’ve noticed is that there are rarely air currents inside the stadium. When it’s hot, the heat just kind of hangs in the air, as does the cigarette smoke from a number of the fathers. I’ll see a man light up, and by the time he’s half done the first whiff of smoke will hit me. Then it sticks around for a good 10 minutes after he’s done.

During games the mothers serve drinks to all the men, including the scouts. It’s typically iced instant coffee, which is deceptive in its momentary coolness and Snickers bar taste, but is sure to induce at least minor stomach pains shortly thereafter. To say nothing of the jittery sleepless nights if I drink one in the late afternoon.

Sometimes parts of the tournament are broadcast on TV, and if they are, as the sole white person in the entire stadium, and as an MLB scout, I’m sure to be shown.

The games and performances all blend together. I mean, I watch the games intensely, don’t get me wrong. If there’s a player I like, or one I’m following, I’m taking notes, and I’ll remember what he does in detail. But there are only so many of those. The rest of the data, which is a lot of baseball in hot humid weather, fills the gaps in my short term memory along with the other occurrences of my day — the water bottles between my legs, the semi-edible hotel buffet room that doubles as a goofy cocktail bar at night, the manager that called a suicide squeeze with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, the leftfielder that misplayed a ball into a triple and was taken out of the game, the chain smoker 10 rows down, the first baseman with the good body and ok swing that can’t hit a breaking ball, the attractive mom that brought me a plate of rice cake. Sometimes parts of the tournament are broadcast on TV, and if they are, as the sole white person in the entire stadium, and as an MLB scout, I’m sure to be shown. I guess I’ll admit I get a kick out of that.

At the end of the final game I’ll extract myself from the hazy wall-to-wall baseball world and head to the high-speed rail station that will take me home to Ulsan, located in the south east corner of the country. I will have gathered the handfuls of memories, along with the proper scouting data I set out to acquire, and reflect on all of it while the Korean countryside goes by at 300kph. Part of what I’ll feel is relief — relieved to get out of the heat, away from the smoke and the noisy hotels, relieved to get back home to my wife and our bed.

But most of what I’ll feel is sadness — sad to realize I won’t get to enter the blur again until the next tournament.

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