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By NORIMITSU ONISHI,Nytimes|
Published: March 20, 2006
SEOUL, South Korea, March 19 — South Korea's loss to Japan on Saturday in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic abruptly ended a winning streak that drew the kind of international recognition this country craves.
"I feel as if we're being hit in the back of the head," Shin Dong Euk, 64, said as he and thousands of other fans watched their countrymen lose on a giant screen in front of City Hall here. "But I don't think it's wrong to say that they were the pride of Korea because it's a miracle we were able to come this far."
Like many other South Koreans, Shin said that he had not followed baseball until the unexpected performance of his nation's team in the Classic. The final will be Monday in San Diego.
Interest here swelled in recent days after the home team defeated countries with longer baseball traditions, especially the United States and Japan.
The victories became laden with deeper significance in South Korea; feelings toward Japan's half-century of colonial rule remain raw and resentment toward the perceived heavy-handedness of its American ally has grown.
Before the tournament began, Japan's Ichiro Suzuki, a Seattle Mariners outfielder, angered South Koreans by saying that he wanted to beat their team in such a way that they would "feel that they won't be able to beat Japan for the next 30 years."
South Korea responded by twice beating Japan, considered baseball's Asian powerhouse, and also by defeating the United States. Immediately made into national heroes, 11 team members who had yet to fulfill South Korea's mandatory military service were told Friday that they would be exempt — a privilege that was granted in the past to medal-winning Olympic athletes and soccer players who advanced to the semifinals in the 2002 World Cup.
In a typical reaction to the team's showing, an editorial in the JoonAng Daily described South Korea's victories against Japan and the United States as "the most triumphant event in the 101 years of Korean baseball history."
"Not only the United States and Japan, but also the entire world is watching Korea's baseball and Koreans with new views," the editorial said, adding that it was a "heroic venture that reminded the world of Korea's pride."
According to the Korea Baseball Organization, American missionaries introduced the sport to the Korean peninsula in 1905, around the same time Japanese colonial rule began.
But it was only in 1982 that a professional baseball league began play, with six teams. Today, there are eight teams, bearing the name of the companies or conglomerates that own them, including the Samsung Lions, Kia Tigers, LG Twins and Hyundai Unicorns.
In recent days, as euphoria spread, people clustered around television sets around noon to catch glimpses of games. Subway riders and office workers peeked at games on their television-equipped cellphones.
Outside City Hall on Sunday, people began leaving before the end of the game as Japan widened its lead over South Korea. The lopsided loss, especially against Japan, made it worse.
"It wouldn't be so bad if we lost against Cuba or another team," said Park Na Hee, 32.
But others tried to look on the bright side even as defeat looked certain.
"They fought well," said Kim Jung Tae, 30. "Even if they lose, I wouldn't be so disappointed because they performed so well so far."