By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Aug. 20 (Yonhap) -- Jung Sang-chul has been a fan of the LG Twins, a Seoul-based Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club, since 1994, the team's last championship season.
In the intervening years, like most other KBO teams, the Twins have had their shares of ups and downs -- mostly downs.
In a league where nearly half the teams make the playoffs, the Twins last reached the postseason in 2002, when they lost to the Samsung Lions in Game 6 of the Korean Series by giving up two home runs in the bottom of the ninth. Since then, the Twins would often get off to a hot start, driving up fans' expectations and hopes, and tricking them into thinking this would be finally their year, only to fade away in June or July.
The Twins haven't won a championship in 19 years -- not quite like the Chicago Cubs, without a World Series title since 1908, but long enough to qualify as a drought in a league that's been around for 31 years.
The Twins' recent demise has given birth to an awkwardly phrased term "Down Team Down (DTD)" -- as in, some teams are eventually bound to go "down" in the standings, no matter how well they play early in the season.
The LG Twins' players celebrate their 16-9 win over the Samsung Lions in Daegu, South Korea, on Aug. 13, 2013. (Yonhap)
In the KBO, the top four clubs in the regular season reach the postseason, with the first-seed earning the bye to the championship Korean Series. From 2003 to 2012, the Twins finished sixth, sixth, sixth, eighth, fifth, eighth, seventh, sixth, sixth and seventh.
All along, Jung has remained a Twins fan.
"I've never lost faith," he recently told Yonhap News Agency. "Twins fans never change."
Indeed, the Twins have consistently been one of the KBO's biggest draws. Even during their decade of playoff drought, they led the KBO in home attendance at Jamsil Stadium in five consecutive seasons starting in 2003, and they have never fallen out of top three in the past 10 season.
LG fans took their devotion to a new level this summer, stuffing the ballots for the All-Star Game and filling every starting position with LG players at the mid-summer classic.
Jeon Ji-eun, a writer at a local radio station, said LG fans whom she knows are "very emotionally attached" to their ball club, but added even the devoted ones have had their faith tested.
"I have to admit last year was when people were tempted to leave," said Jeon, a fan since the early 2000s. "We all said, 'Let's just stick it out one more year and see.'"
The fans' loyalty could be finally paid off this year, in the form of a playoff appearance and, perhaps, a championship.
The 2013 season has been unlike any other recent season by the Twins. Usually fast out of the gate, the Twins were only 19-23 on May 28, just seventh among nine teams.
Then the Twins turned things around in a hurry. In a remarkable stretch that has drawn a favorable comparison with the Los Angeles Dodgers' historic, 42-8 streak in Major League Baseball (MLB), the Twins have gone 39-16 since May 28 through last Sunday, to climb to second place at 58-39. They have not lost consecutive games since July 8, and the Lions, who are at 56-37-2, are only slightly ahead in winning percentage, .602 to .598.
The team's success on the field has been a boon to the attendance. The Twins are in second in home attendance with just over 944,000 fans so far, about 2,000 behind the Doosan Bears, who share Jamsil Stadium as the home ballpark.
Statistically, the Twins are also the most complete team in the KBO this year, as the owners of the second-best team batting average and the lowest team ERA. They've scored the third most runs and given up the fewest. They're also the only team whose bullpen ERA is under 4.00. The second-year manager Kim Ki-tae, a former KBO All-Star and a batting champion, has been credited with changing the losing culture in the club house and building chemistry between veterans and youngsters.
The patented collapse that even their own fans have come to expect hasn't happened and probably never will this year. A playoff berth seems almost a lock with 31 games remaining in the season.
Jung Sang-chul expressed "cautious optimism" about the Twins' playoff chances this year. Others, though, are decidedly more convinced that this year is their team's year.
Take, for instance, Huh Jin-seok, an instructor at a local university. He has been a fan of the Twins since the franchise's founding years, when they were called the MBC Blue Dragons. He said he understands how some fans may still have their doubts but that he believes the best is yet to come for the Twins this year.
"It's been so long since the team won the championship, and I can see how some people may be feeling a bit uneasy," Huh said. "But I think the team finally has the opportunity (to do well in the playoffs). If you liken the regular season to a marathon race, we haven't hit the final stretch yet. That will be in September. There's no need to waste energy now."
Huh grew up in Seoul rooting for Seoul-based high schools at national tournaments in the 1970s before the KBO was founded. But you don't necessarily have to be from Seoul or South Korea to fall in love with the Twins.
Just ask Joshua Adams, who said he has been an LG fan since he came here from the United States in 2009. Adams, who teaches English literature at Sejong University in Seoul, said he was impressed with "amazing" fan support in his first game in April 2009, a season in which the team went on to finish seventh among eight teams, and has been a fan since.
Adams said he can relate to the Twins' travails because their history resembles that of his favorite NFL team, the Detroit Lions.
"They have been the worst team in the NFL for a very long time," said Adams, who's from Michigan. "I firmly believe that if you are a fan of a team, you have to dig in and support the team no matter the record. Eventually, the team will turn things around, and you will be rewarded."
Antoine Goupil, a Frenchman who has spent a combined time of about a year in South Korea in various stints, is also all about "loyalty and hope for better days." Goupil, currently in Paris and scheduled to move to Seoul next week, said he became a Twins fan in 2009, after discovering baseball thanks to his wife who he says is a "die-hard Twins fan since her childhood."
"I tend to like underdogs so I started to cheer for the Twins, even though there wasn't much to cheer about that year," he said. "There is no shame in supporting a losing team. It actually shows you are not superficial and loves the sport, not only the result."
Both Goupil and Adams said they're not fond of bandwagoners who choose their favorite teams based on their recent success. Goupil spoke about his love for a French football club, FC Nantes, recalling the team's French Champions' Trophy wins, most recently in 2001, its run to the semifinals at the 1996 UEFA Champions League, and its demotions to the second-tier league, mostly recently after the 2008-9 season.
"Performance has only a small impact on what I think of a team," he said. "(FC Nantes) will always be my team, and (the) same goes for LG."
Fans of the LG Twins cheer on their team at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap file photo)
Adams said the Twins' success this year has made enduring through losing seasons all worth it. And yet, true to form as an LG fan, he said he still had doubts because the Twins have "failed at some point" in every year he's watched them.
"It seems that LG and Samsung are playing the best baseball right now," he said. "Considering the format of the playoffs (in which the No. 2 seed moves straight into the second round), if we can stay where we are in the standings, we are guaranteed to get deep in the playoffs. Having said all of that, to be honest, part of me is still waiting for the wheels to come off."
Both Adams and Goupil said they're concerned about the Twins' lack of power, so far the only gaping hole in their game. They've hit 52 home runs, the third fewest in the league, with just one player in the top 20 in the KBO in long balls.
Jeon, the radio writer, shared their reservations.
"The Twins are doing well now, but for the past decade, (fans) were always nervous about when the team would fall apart," she said. "Even now, we are all just like, 'Oh my God, please win. Don't make mistakes. Will we make it to the playoffs?'"
Jeon said she is worried that key bullpen pitchers, such as Lee Dong-hyun and Bong Jung-keun, have been overused. Lee, 30, boasts a 6-0 record as a middle reliever with a 2.35 ERA in 49 games. Only three pitchers have appeared in more games than Lee this year.
Bong, 33, is tied for the KBO lead with 30 saves in 43 appearances, with an ERA of 1.38. He has already pitched in three more games in 2013 than he did last season.
Still, Jeon said there will be "one huge party" if the Twins go all the way this year. She said she plans to celebrate with her fellow fans at a popular barbecue place near Jamsil Stadium that Twins players often visit for team dinners.
Jung Sang-chul, the fan since 1994, said he "might even cry" if the Twins end their title drought this year.
"It's about time we had something to celebrate," he said. "Gotta find the champagne opener."
Manager Kim has yet to utter words such as "first place" or "playoffs" in his pre-game dugout sessions with reporters, seemingly to avoid jinxing his club's postseason chances.
Adams knows all too well where Kim comes from.
"I won't make any plans (for celebration) until it actually happens," he said. "I don't want to jinx it."