Australians give Asia's best a run for their money

Sizing up the media scrum that had gathered at the Australian embassy in Seoul, Australia's ambassador to South Korea, Sam Gerovich, mused: ''We didn't get this many for Ian Thorpe.''

This is the sort of welcome usually reserved for rock stars or visiting dignitaries. Or Ian Thorpe. Not for a contingent of sportspeople barely recognisable in their own country let alone a foreign one. But these are baseballers in a land where the game is the national sport. Even the Korean women's baseball competition is televised.

And part of the Perth Heat line-up, which travelled to contest the 2012 Asia Series against the best teams from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, was the legendary Dae-Sung Koo. A few short months ago Koo was just another 43-year-old playing in relative anonymity for Marrickville in Sydney's winter baseball competition. But in South Korea there was no mistaking the man with the 150km/h fastball who made an estimated $40 million in a career that included a starring stint at the New York Mets. ''At 43 it's a bit like Warnie coming back to the Big Bash League,'' said ABL general manager Ben Foster. ''A bit of a testimonial.''

Koo was part of the South Korean contingent who came to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics. He fell in love with the city and when the opportunity came to join the Sydney Blue Sox, he grabbed it. Now he gets mobbed on return to his former home, as an Australian citizen, while on loan to the reigning national champions.

There was no sign of Koo in the Heat's first game, against the Lotte Giants, in the host city of Busan. The starting time of 6pm, an hour before most Koreans knock off, ensured there was a small crowd. It's not just in Australia that broadcasters run sporting schedules. While tens of millions watched the game throughout Asia, only a few turned up at Sajik Stadium. Those who did were vocal, chanting a series of pop songs doctored to incorporate ''Lotte'', the name of the multinational conglomerate bankrolling the team. It's hard to imagine Australian punters cheering so enthusiastically for a sponsor. Strange also was the sight of supporters tying inflated plastic bags on their heads and cheerleaders at the baseball, but it all added to the atmosphere. The Heat, still jet-lagged from their long flight, made a series of uncharacteristic errors and were punished for each one.

The result, a 6-1 defeat, prompted many questions from a big media contingent.

Why didn't any of their top-four hitters get on base? How will they bounce back in tomorrow's fixture against raging favourites Yomiuri Giants? Where the hell was Koo?

The Yomiuri Giants roster is estimated to be worth $45 million. Their cheapest player earns more than the entire Perth squad. ''They are the New York Yankees of Asia,'' Foster said.

This was a classic mismatch. And yet, as the game unfolded, the Australians held their own. The halfway mark came and went and the combatants were scoreless. And then, at the top of the sixth, the unthinkable. Tim Kennelly drove a single centre at the top of the sixth inning to get Corey Adamson home. The Heat hit the lead. The crowd, just like it did in Rocky IV, stopped baying for the blood of the underdog and switched allegiances, when Ivan Drago caught one on the chin. A chant, in a thick Korean accent, started up: ''Let's go Heat!'' For a brief moment, it appeared Australian baseball would achieve its most significant result since its silver medal at the Athens Olympics. But this is not Hollywood. Drago responded with a blow of his own in the sixth round.

And then three more scoring punches shortly afterwards. Koo came out of the bullpen but, still suffering the effects of a groin injury, could not get his team off the ropes. A late flurry meant that, when the bell sounded after the ninth and final round, the score had blown out to 7-1. I had to look away. The card did not reflect the fight put up by the vanquished.

''If a couple of things go our way when we're 1-0, we sneak a win in there,'' Foster said. ''Everyone knows we came to play. The fact we got Lotte's best pitcher on the first night - they weren't saving him to pitch against the Japanese - we had the respect to warrant that. That's encouraging. The more we keep coming, the more people see us play.''

The matches gave the Australians a chance to show their skills to a new market. There is plenty of money to be made in Asia. There is more on offer in Japan than in South Korea, while South Korea offers more than Taiwan. None of it is to be sneezed at. The minimum wage in Major League Baseball is $US480,000 ($463,000) but proven players in Asia earn much more.

Foster believes Heat infielder Luke Hughes, who has played for the Minnesota Twins, is the ideal candidate to play in the region. ''He could make more money in Japan than at Major League level,'' Foster said.

The ABL also benefited from the visit. Officials closed several deals, including a six-figure licensing deal and a broadcast arrangement that will give the ABL more TV exposure in Asia than in Australia. Having participated in the past two Asia Series tournaments, there are talks about bringing the series here. It's a realistic goal if the league receives corporate and government support.

''The pressure for us in the next few years will be to improve to a point where we can take a couple of games here and then look to host the tournament,'' Foster said. It would give Australia the sort of Asian exposure that even Ian Thorpe can't.

Adrian Proszenko travelled to South Korea as a guest of the Australian Baseball League.

The story Australians give Asia's best a run for their money first appeared on WA Today.

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