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Kimchi In The Outfield

Some fine articles by local Korean writers remind one bozo (me) of childhood baseball memories.

If this was a pile of lard and not kimchi Hrbek would eat it.
If this was a pile of lard and not kimchi Hrbek would eat it.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

I was reading "Korean Quarterly," a free paper in English for Minnesota's Korean community, and a couple of articles took me back. In one, Twins newcomer Byung Ho Park remembers how, growing up, "baseball requires quite a bit of money to start with" but "my parents still supported me." In another, Nik Nadeau writes about adjusting to life in Minnesota, and mentions "you can eat kimchi pizza" in Minneapolis restaurant Pizzeria Lola. (It sounds pretty good.)

We had kimchi in the outfield when I was a boy.

I never played organized kid-level ball. My father said I wasn't good enough (nice guy, huh?), but I imagine the real reason was we were too poor for the fees and equipment costs. My dad worked at Toys"R"Us, and while we children thought this was the greatest job ever, I'm sure it couldn't feed a family of five. So no uniform and ballfield for me; I was crushed.

It didn't last long, though. In my fourth-grade year we moved to a different apartment complex, one with better lawn space for kids to play in. And, what's more, lots of kids who wanted to play baseball. Most of my friends (meaning most of the kids nearby) had Spanish or Korean-speaking parents, and there were almost always some up for a game.

Meaning 18 kids? Oh, Lord, no. By "better lawn space" I meant the old apartment had a lawn on a steep hill. The new lawn was flat, but small. If you put 18 kids in that space it would be because parents finally decided they'd had enough, cordoned off the lawn, and let us all go "Lord Of The Flies" on each other. (We used tennis balls to avoid killing ourselves -- and the patio windows.)

Games had anything from 2-8 players. If there were only two, the pitcher had a rough time, as whoever was pitching did "go fetch" duty (otherwise that was the fielders' job). Nobody played at any base, only as randomly positioned fielders. Getting an out basically meant catching the ball on the fly, although weak grounders could be thrown to "first" (a particular spot on the yard fence.) If the ball hit the fence before the runner got there, it was an out.

(With two players, you only ran bases while the ball was in play. Whatever base you stopped at had a "ghost runner," advanced by more hits. I can't remember if we ever gave the ghost runners imaginary names. That would have been funny.)

You slid into "home" (a patch of dead grass) every chance you got -- even without anyone catching -- because we were kids, and kids love getting messy. Over the years that dead patch of grass turned into a bare patch of dirt, and over a decade later -- long after we'd stopped playing baseball there -- that spot at "home" was still grass-less. (I see from Google Earth that later apartment managers just gave up and turned that side of the lawn into a bare dirt strip.)

The kimchi was in left field, behind a neighbor's apartment, in containers in the ground. If you're not familiar with kimchi, it's basically like a Korean form of sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), except it smells much stronger. So much so that some people who make it use a separate fridge to store it (because that fridge and everything in it will smell, too.) It tastes delicious (again, if you like sour-tasting food), and our neighbors always shared some. But new kids in the neighborhood always wondered what the smell was. Even underground, you could smell it!

It grew on you, though. And guess what? The St. Paul Saints this year will serve a "dragon burger" with kimchi on it. My crystal ball predicts this to definitely be in my future . . .