Korea thumps Venezuela like a drum

LOS ANGELES – For hours almost without pause, fans of South Korea's baseball team keep a clarion ballpark beat. They bang their drums. They clap their hands and stomp their feet. They pound their balloon noise makers. They push sales of Tylenol.

It is an idle pursuit, mostly. Saturday night, for example, it served to kill time during Venezuela's many pitching changes, and if the Venezuelans at Dodger Stadium were as disgusted with countryman Magglio Ordonez as Venezuelans in Miami, well, that was drowned out, too.

"For a minute," Venezuela manager Luis Sojo said, "I thought we were in Korea."

At times, the relentless pulse indeed seems to align with the heartbeat of its ballclub, as it did in Korea's very earnest thump-thump-thumping of Venezuela, a 10-2 win that placed it in Monday night's World Baseball Classic final against the winner of Sunday's semifinal between the USA and Japan.

This was a victory so thorough it began hours – days even – before the first pitch, when Team Venezuela thought it would be a fine idea to pitch Carlos Silva and leave Felix Hernandez on the bench, you know, for the final.

"He's been my best pitcher," Sojo had said of Silva on Saturday afternoon. "And he really wants to pitch, really believes he can do this. I can't take that away from him."

Indeed, Silva had been wonderful in his previous starts of the tournament – against Italy and the Netherlands. Given the start against Korea, Olympic gold medalists last summer and clearly one of the more talented teams in this tournament, Silva was the guy who was lost 15 games for the Seattle Mariners during the time Korea was winning that gold medal.

On a cool evening and against a bang-bang-bang backdrop, the gap between the teams was measured in so many ways beyond the final score – Venezuela committed five errors, Korean pitchers showed better command (one walk) and better stuff, Venezuela foolishly ran itself out of an inning in a seven-run deficit.

And then there was the score.

So, sitting amid the drumbeat of relentless strikes and big hits and seemingly endless runs, watching Korea manager In Sik Kim basically clear his bench with a third of the game still to be played, there came this thought: Venezuela's roster held nearly two dozen current big league players, Korea's has one.

Maybe you'd fathom a fluke win, but not 10-2. Maybe you'd get a freak pitching performance that was just barely enough, but not 10-2.

South Korean baseball is in the final, and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, birthplaces of so many major league players, are not. Cuba, with all the international rep, is not. Venezuela, clearly, is not. One of Japan and the U.S. will not be.

Instead, we have the nation of Chan Ho Park, of Hee Seop-Choi, of Cha Seung Baek, the players you know, none of whom are participating in this tournament.

And you wonder why the guys throwing fastballs past – and curling sliders away from – big-league hitters do not find their way here, where pitching is so hard to come by. The Venezuelans fawned over Suk-Min Yoon, who started for Korea on Saturday night and breezed into the seventh inning.

You wonder why a hitter such as the powerful Tae Kyun Kim – he homered for the third time in the tournament, singled and scored three runs – hasn't been lured to the U.S. After he hammered Silva's final pitch – a fastball – into the left-field bleachers and circled the bases, Kim stood on the top step of the dugout and shyly raised his arms, much to the delight of his fellow Koreans.

Well, for one thing, the bureaucratic route from Korea to the big leagues is even more difficult than the one from Japan. According to one baseball official, free agency in the Korea Baseball Organization only comes after nine seasons and there is no posting process like the one in Japan.

Shin-Soo Choo, expected to play right field for the Cleveland Indians, was signed (by the Mariners) directly out of high school.

Asked why there aren't more Koreans in the major leagues, Choo said, "I don't know what to say. I don't know. … In terms of their skill level, I believe there is no major difference between the major leagues and our Korean players. Our Korean players, I hope, will be able to advance to the major leagues in great number. And I hope they will do so in the future."

The Venezuelans perhaps were the best judge. In a game that was important to them – they'd been a flop in the inaugural WBC and viewed these final couple games as their payback – they were utterly outplayed.

Maybe the Koreans aren't here yet. Maybe they'll have to be satisfied with a growing international reputation, and another step out from Japan's rather long and imposing baseball shadow. But, Sojo said, the Koreans are coming.

"There will be," he said. "To see the way [Suk-Min Yoon] threw the ball, it opened a lot of eyes. The bullpen was outstanding. I don't know. It surprises me that there aren't that many Koreans in the big leagues. But I think from now on there will be."

You can almost hear the drumbeat.