S. Korea's first baseball dome opens, tenant still needed

SEOUL, Sept. 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's first domed baseball stadium opened Tuesday in Seoul after more than six years of construction and multiple changes to its design, with its permanent tenant still not decided.

Gocheok Sky Dome is situated in the district of Guro in the western part of the capital city. Seoul Metropolitan Facilities Management Corp., under the auspices of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, will be in charge of operations.
It has a capacity of about 18,000 for baseball games and up to 25,000 for concerts and other events. Artificial grass has been installed on the playing field, and fences have been padded for extra protection and safety, after consulting with Major League Baseball groundskeepers. The same type of dirt used in big league ballparks has been put in place on the mound, base paths and the batters box.

It's 122.2 meters from home plate to straight away center, and 99 meters down the right field and left field lines, making it the second-largest baseball field after Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. The outfield fence is 4 meters high, the second tallest after Sajik Stadium in Busan. The bullpens are located well underground, 26 steps from the field of play.

Aside from premium seating areas with leather sofas, luxurious skybox suites and infield table seats -- totaling a little over 1,000 seats -- cheaper and tighter spectator seats won't exactly offer comfortable viewing experience. With 55 centimeters of leg room for infield seats and 46 centimeters for outfield seats, more than a few adult men will have their knees touching the back of the seat in front of them.

With monsoon rains constantly forcing postponements of Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) professional games and affecting late-regular season and postseason schedules, baseball fans and officials have long clamored for a dome in the country.

In 2008, Seoul announced a plan for an open baseball field but modified it to make it a half-dome stadium the following year. Then later in 2009, then Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said the ballpark would be built into a complete dome. Through these changes, the construction budget soared from about 40 billion won (US$33.8 million) to more than 200 billion won.

The women's national baseball team and the Seoul National University squad had the honor of playing the first game at Gocheok Sky Dome that started at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. Officials said they will put the stadium through more tests before a formal opening in November.

While an amateur game will open the stadium, Gocheok Sky Dome will eventually be occupied by one of the existing KBO teams, possibly the Seoul-based Nexen Heroes. Of the 10 KBO clubs, the Doosan Bears and the LG Twins play their home games at Jamsil Stadium in southern Seoul, with a maximum capacity of 27,000. The Heroes, the other Seoul club, are based at Mokdong Stadium, which can seat up to 12,500 people despite not having outfield seats. Both stadiums are properties of Seoul, and the teams pay the metropolitan government annual fees for their use. Seoul has been in talks with the Heroes over relocation to Gocheok Sky Dome, but the two sides haven't been able to narrow their differences on annual fees.

The Bears and the Twins are far more established than the Heroes as Seoul teams. The Bears, which started out as the OB Bears when the KBO was launched in 1982, moved from Daejeon to Seoul in 1985. The Twins, who joined the KBO as the MBC Blue Dragons, have been in the capital from Day 1.

The Heroes, on the other hand, only came into existence in 2008 in place of the Hyundai Unicorns, which folded under financial hardships. If the Heroes and Seoul reach an agreement, the ball club would be moving to a park with more seats. After early struggles, the Heroes have grown into a title contender in recent seasons and bigger crowds would certainly help the cash-strapped team.

The Heroes are the only KBO club not run by a major business corporation, and it may make financial sense for the Heroes to move, but team officials have said they have only just started to be embraced by their fans in the Mokdong area. They have also complained that Gocheok Sky Dome is much less accessible for fans because it is difficult to reach by public transit and has limited parking space.