Baseball fan US envoy Lippert predicts MLB success for Park Byung-ho

November 20, 2015
Mark Lippert, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, watches a Korea Baseball Organization postseason game between the Doosan Bears and the NC Dinos at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul on Oct. 22, 2015. (Yonhap file photo)

Mark Lippert, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, watches a Korea Baseball Organization postseason game between the Doosan Bears and the NC Dinos at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul on Oct. 22, 2015. (Yonhap file photo)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — When he’s not busy representing the United States in South Korea, Mark Lippert enjoys attending professional baseball games.

In fact, the top U.S. envoy to Seoul has become such a dedicated fan in just over a year here that he sometimes gets “angry” when his official duties prevent him from going to the ballparks.

“I’d like to go on Friday and Saturday. But I can’t tell you how many times I was booked on Friday and Saturday this summer,” Lippert said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul on Thursday.

“There have been multiple times where I’ve been angry,” Lippert added with a smile. Then speaking in his improving Korean, Lippert went on, “I was angry because there were some boring appointments. I wanted to go to Jamsil Stadium (in Seoul).”

Lippert, who grew up a fan of his hometown club the Cincinnati Reds, has endeared himself to baseball fans in South Korea by taking in Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) games with his family. He went to his first KBO game in November last year, just days after taking over as the ambassador, to watch the Nexen Heroes host the Samsung Lions at Mokdong Stadium in Seoul. Then this year, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Doosan Bears and was appointed an honorary ambassador for the KBO.

Lippert reckoned that he went to about a dozen games in 2015, a total he’d like to see increase next year.

“The good thing is my wife (Robyn) really likes going to baseball games,” he said. “Now, I’ve been able to appeal to her. I went to a lot of games this fall after we got back from vacation. I said, ‘We’ve got to keep Friday and Saturday open so we can go to more ball games.’”

Lippert is a Bears fan, but he has also taken a particular liking to Park Byung-ho, a star slugger for the Heroes. Park, the league MVP in 2012 and 2013, led the KBO with 53 home runs and 146 RBIs this year, and he’s currently in contract talks with the Minnesota Twins, who won the bid for the posted first baseman at US$12.85 million.

Lippert, calling the player “Park Byung-home run,” at first said Park is his favorite KBO player. The envoy then caught himself and said Park “was” his favorite KBO star, perhaps sensing the slugger will likely be in a major league uniform next season.

“You see Park Byung-ho’s swing, and it’s just an amazing, fluid and powerful swing,” Lippert said. “So you’ve got to think he’s going to do well.”

Noting that the Twins shelled out a large sum of money just in the posting bid — it’s the second largest bid for an Asian position player — Lippert added, “I think people who know baseball in the United States decided to make a pretty key investment. They wouldn’t make the investment without good understanding that he’s going to do well.”

Lippert said he’d heard about some of the unique aspects of the KBO that separate it from Major League Baseball (MLB) — namely, constant cheering and music and chants for each individual player — but nothing beat going to actual games.

“It far exceeded my expectations in terms of crowd enthusiasm, the quality of play and the atmosphere at the ballpark,” he said of his first impression of the KBO. “It reminded me a lot of going to a college football game in the United States.”

Once he settles into his seat, Lippert can become as down to earth as any fan. He has fallen in love with the South Korean ballpark staple of “chimaek,” a compound word of chicken and “maekju,” the Korean word for beer. He can hum to some of the cheering songs sampled from such pop hits as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by the Beatles.

Lippert has seen his profile rise among the general public here this year, thanks to his display of resilience in recovering from an attack by a knife-wielding man in March. He gets recognized that much more in public places such as baseball stadiums, where fans have given him rolls of gimbap (rice and other ingredients rolled in seaweed) and have asked him to take photos with them while he was standing in a restroom line.

Lippert said he found such experiences “uniquely Korean” and said it’s been fun interacting with fans that way. He also said “one out of every four official meetings” he attends starts with a conversation about baseball, saying such a common link “has a lubricating effect.”

And as the KBO’s honorary ambassador, Lippert said he realizes his responsibility is to keep extolling the virtues of the Korean brand of baseball to fans.

“When you think about the history and origins of this game in Korea, it was at the heart of the time when our alliance was being formed,” he said. “It’s a special, unique history. And I think what’s so great about it today is that it’s uniquely Korean. In a way, one part of the role is to remind people of the origins and point out this great statement of the alliance of people-to-people diplomacy, and also highlight the great evolution. Just like the alliance, the game itself has changed and evolved, and it’s exciting and dynamic just like the alliance.”

Baseball also carries a personal significance for Lippert, who said the sport is “associated with some of my fondest memories growing up in the summer.” His father was a season ticket holder for the Reds, and Lippert said he was one of more than 47,000 fans at the old Riverfront Stadium on Sept. 11, 1985, when Pete Rose got his 4,192nd hit to pass Ty Cobb as the all-time leader in the majors. Lippert also went to a game during the 1990 World Series, when the Reds swept the favored Oakland Athletics.

On a broader level, Lippert said he appreciates the role baseball can play in diplomacy as well.

“For people who don’t study geopolitics and aren’t often engaged in foreign policy, baseball really can open up their eyes to this very important alliance, through American players playing here and Korean players playing in the major leagues,” Lippert said. “It’s a way to bring the alliance, the relationship and the values that we share and increase awareness through a simple game. Baseball is something that’s associated and identified with the United States. It’s also something that other countries have grabbed and made their own. It’s a great kind of model of how things that have their origins in the United States can also become our shared heritage.”

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