26 December 2020

K Drama Review: Hot Stove League (2019)

Oppa mentioned Hot Stove League in the past. He was curious because it was about baseball. We became even more curious when we found out that it won the Best Drama award in this year's Baeksang Art Awards. And I'm happy to say that the show lived up to our expectations. I would understand though if traditional K drama fans who prefer the usual rom-coms would not really appreciate this. It's different and you need to have a different mindset to fully appreciate this show. 

Plot


Hot Stove League tells the story of the Dreams professional baseball team that has been at the bottom of the league for the past four years. The parent company has not been supportive because the team has been in deficit for so long. The players are so used to losing that they manage to laugh things off even after they lose so badly. The coaches have factions. It is a problematic team. The general manger resigns  and a new one is appointed, Baek Seung Soo (Namkoong Min). Baek does not have a baseball background so players, coaches, and staff have a hard time respecting and taking him seriously. He previously managed wrestling and handball teams that both won championships only to be disbanded afterwards. The director from the parent company assigned to oversee the Dreams, Kwon Kyeong Min (Oh Jung Se), gives Baek the mission to disband the team after the season ends. However, Baek pushes back and shows that he means business. He insists that per his track record, he should steer  the time to victory first before it can be disbanded. Hot Stove League takes us through Baek's story of rebuilding the Dreams and turning it into a formidable team. 

The Good

Namkoong Min as Baek Seung Soo

Namkoong Min impressed me so much that I'm now seriously contemplating if he should be included in my Oppa list. He resembles Jung Kyung Ho of Prison Playbook and that makes him even more lovable. 

Namkoong Min was perfect for the role of Baek. I absolutely loved his nonchalant acting and deadpan delivery of his lines. He pulls it off even while uttering witty and funny remarks and retorts. He mastered that poker face look so well that you can never guess what he's thinking about. Now I'm curious to watch Namkoong Min in a lighter role to see if he can hack it as well. 

As for his character, I loved how Baek always spoke with his performance that you really can't criticize him anymore. He was beat up, ridiculed, laughed at, mocked for not knowing baseball, and always pushed to the wall by management. Yet, he never complained and he never saw the need to defend himself. He did his homework and he researched so well so no one can question his decisions. His performance always spoke for itself - like how he asked his former wrestler to research  for and rescue him from Lim Dong Gyu (Jo Han Sun), the Dreams' cleanup hitter, who was bullying him, or his work during the trades, problem with their scouting coach, recruiting a foreign player, negotiations with the players, selling the team, etc. 

Baek is the type of boss we should all aspire to be or have. He is quiet but he is never a pushover. He always protects the interests of his people, even if it costs him his job. 

I liked how the show gradually revealed bits of backstories of Baek. We get to see all of his sides and understand why he lives the way he does. We have a multi-dimensional character who actually has a life outside of his job. I loved the story about his brother, Baek Yeong Soo (Yoon Sun Woo). Baek felt guilty of causing his brother's permanent disability and he vowed to protect him at all costs, even to the point supporting him for the rest of his life. It was sad to know that Baek and his wife drifted apart due to the loss of their baby. And I super loved that Baek always took photos of his food before eating so he can send it to his mother to assure her that he's eating well. I loved that even if he seems so detached from the world, Baek is human just like the rest of us. 

I also loved Baek's little bromance with the Vikings' general manager, Kim Jong Moo (Lee Dae Yeon). Although they were tough competitors, I appreciated how the older GM sort of mentored Baek. And while he was older, the Vikings' GM respected Baek because he knew he was good at what he did. 

And although Baek was often criticized for being harsh and heartless, it's so easy to see that he is a good person deep inside. He took back Lim Dong Gyu and he worked hard to get back Kang Doo Ki (Ha Do Kwon), the team's pitcher (who coincidentally resembles Park Hae Soo, the lead star pitcher in Prison Playbook), who was unfairly traded to another team. And the greatest testament to his goodness was how he selflessly gave up his position in the end to save the team. Although he lost his job, Baek succeeded in achieving his goal for the Dreams and he truly deserved it. 

Park Eun Bin as Lee Se Young

Lee Se Young was the Dreams' petite but very feisty and brutally frank operations manager. I don't think anyone can match her dedication and passion for the team. Se Young was perfect for her job because she genuinely loved and cared for the Dreams. She made it her life's mission to protect the team and the people in it - she defended Baek when the rude catcher, Seo Yeong Joo (Cha Yup), was disrespecting him and she persistently tried to find a way to have Baek back on the team when he was unjustly dismissed. 

The great thing is that Se Young never allows her undying love for the team and the close relationships she's built with her colleagues to cloud her judgment. When she sees something wrong, she speaks up and she does something about it - like how she reported the scouting coach, Ko Se Hyeok (Lee Jun Hyeok), for bribery even if he was close to her. 

Although she had very limited screen time, I also loved Se Young's mother, Jeong Mi Sook (Yoon Bok In). I appreciated how she always enlightened Se Young whenever the latter had a dilemma at work. Her story about paying Se Young's teacher for better grades made Se Young realize that Mr. Ko might actually be getting money from the athletes' parents in exchange for recruitment. The mom's remark about businessmen never selling at a loss enlightened Se Young that there must have been more to the Kang Doo Ki trade, which led to the discovery of the dual contract. The mom's analysis were always spot on and they helped move the story forward. 

I loved that poignant story of young Se Young watching the Dreams' games with her dad even if they did not have money. She was a Dreams fan to the core and the team could not ask for a better and more dedicated operations manager than Se Young. 

I was thoroughly impressed with Park Eun Bin. She looked so mature and in control as Se Young so I was surprised to find out that she's actually young. And she appears soft, sweet, and very feminine in her other photos - a total opposite of the often angry and screaming Se Young. I'm curious to watch her other dramas too to further explore Park Eun Bin's range. 

Jo Byung Gyu as Han Jae Hee

Han Jae Hee was Se Young's assistant at the Operations Department. He's an all-around guy who even had to fill in for the team's mascot during the pilot episode. Jae Hee's from a rich family so others suspect that he got in because of his connections. On the contrary, however, he actually worked hard. He had great zeal for his job. He even declined his perks at work to prove that he was serious. I liked how Baek scolded him and told him that he still needs to take advantage of his benefits as an employee despite being rich. 

I liked how Jae Hee strived to prove his detractors wrong. He voluntarily shadowed Baek, probably because he also had dreams of being a GM some day. He even took private catching lessons because he felt it might be useful to the team later on - and he was actually right because that somehow helped them recruit their foreign player. I loved how he always gave more than what was asked for, thanks perhaps to the great training he got from Se Young who was a perfect role model for him. 

And he's the perfect employee to have. Apart from his impeccable work ethics, his loyalty to his colleagues, especially Se Young and Baek, is truly amazing. I loved how he stood up to the company owner when he was treating Baek rudely. 


Although they were always arguing, I also loved that little love storyline between Se Young and Jae Hee. It was obvious that Jae Hee had a huge crush on his boss. And although Se Young probably noticed that, she never felt awkward around him and she did not let that get in the way of their working relationship. 

Just like the other lead stars in the show, I was also pleasantly surprised with Jo Byung Gyu. He played the role of the love sick puppy really well. He was so cute everytime he tried so hard to impress Se Young. He was also credible as an underling who was always eager to learn from his colleagues. I saw that he was also on Sky Castle. Could he finally be the reason that will push us to watch that show? 

Sports and Athletes


We love watching sports so it's very easy for us to appreciate sports-themed shows. But Hot Stove League did not merely rely on being a sports drama to lure viewers. It managed to offer nuggets of wisdom that even non-sports fans would learn from. 


I loved how the drama highlighted that good attitude would always trump skill and and talent. Lim Dong Gyu was the perfect example. Yes, he was an extremely talented player but his attitude really sucked. So despite his long history with the team, it was quite easy to take him out. 

I also loved how the show did not glamorize sports and the lives of athletes. We did not see a lot of shrieking fans gushing over the athletes like gods. Instead, we saw the difficulties that athletes go through. Their bodies are beaten up and they have to deal with various aches, pains, and injuries. That scene where Seo Yeong Joo had to have numerous treatments in a single trip to the hospital for his knees, hemorrhoids, etc., was both funny and sad. 

Athletes have to spend a lot too - for their gear and individual trainings. Although this is probably not true for big athletes, I'm sure it's a struggle shared by majority of the athletes out there. The rising pitcher, Yoo Min Ho (Chae Jong Hyeop), could not even afford to buy a new pair of shoes to replace his tattered one. Unfortunately, people would often have the mistaken notion that athletes earn a lot - which can be burdensome for the athletes' families who would be expected to live a certain kind of lifestyle.  The wife of Jang Jin Woo (Hong Ki Joon), the team's relief pitcher, commented proudly that her husband earned the most in their building. I can just imagine the weight that those words had on Jin Woo. Some athletes unfortunately succumb to the pressure and try to live recklessly thinking that they can afford it - like Dong Gyu who got into gambling and Yeong Joo who kept on partying even if his body could no longer take the extra beating. 


And athletes get into slumps too and can be unfairly criticized for it. I loved how the drama showed Min Ho's struggle with the yips, a sudden inability to throw the baseball accurately. Sometimes it's so easy for us fans to dish out criticisms that we sometimes forget that these kids are people too who might be struggling with some issues. 


I also liked how the show touched on the issue of doping - a concern across a lot of sports. I just learned how really talented athletes become very easy targets when a doping scandal happens. Doo Ki and Dong Gyu were immediately suspected of doping just because they were very talented. I'm glad that they were cleared. It was also a bonus that stiffer penalties were imposed for doping, to make a statement that it's never okay and fair to do this. 

And since it's a male-dominated sports drama, it was inevitable to show a bit of violence here and there - like when Dong Gyu was harassing Baek or the occasional flare ups of the players and coaches like when they're negotiating for their salaries. But I loved how the show had just the right amount of violence - nothing excessive that could turn off viewers. 

Baseball


I live in a basketball crazy country where all other sports take the backseat. I admit that initially, it was quite difficult for me to follow and understand the show. There were a lot of things and terms I was clueless about so I had to repeat watching a couple of scenes. I appreciate that the drama tried its best to provide the right pacing to allow non-baseball fans like me to follow the show. And it really helped that Oppa knows a lot of things about baseball so I had my personal teacher. 


When I was able to adjust to the baseball stuff, I loved how the drama showed us the behind the scenes stories. We mostly hear about the athletes and the outcomes but we rarely get a glimpse of the negotiations that happen. It was so exciting to see how competition can be so intense when it comes to scouting and trading players. 

I loved the analysis injected into the show to teach us how things are done. It's such a complicated process to draft players with trades in mind to eventually get the players you need, similar to what the Dreams did during the Rule 5 draft (drafting players who don't form part of other teams' 40-man roster). 

The controversial issue of players training during the break was also new information for me. I loved how the show tried to present both sides and the need to balance the players' need to improve, especially those in the weaker teams, with avoiding the exploitation of players. 

So apart from being entertaining, Hot Stove League was also very informative and educational for me. It's nice to know the meaning of some baseball terms. 

Dreams


I loved the show that even after watching a couple of episodes, I was already super attached to the team. I felt that a strong separation anxiety was coming after it was revealed that the parent company planned to disband the team. 

I liked the Dreams' evolution from a team that was so used to losing, with players and coaches who no longer believed in themselves to a team that aimed for nothing less than the finals. I was rooting for them, especially the young ones like Min Ho. And I absolutely loved how Baek came to the team - initially perceived as a jerk but eventually became an inspiring figure who gave them hope and followed through for them til the end. 


I loved how the team gradually jelled together - especially after they realized that they could be an actual contender. The staff pushed back when it became apparent that the parent company was trying to destroy them. They all did their parts in helping Baek turn the team into something profitable. 

And how the players and coaches learned how to support each other, set aside their personal differences, and just focus on what's best for the team. I especially loved that scene where they talked to Min Ho to help him overcome his yips. They were very constructive and encouraging. A huge burden must have been taken off Min Ho's shoulders when he was told that they did not expect anything from him, there was no pressure at all to do well, and they just want him to play baseball and get over his slump. 


And because they've established a stronger bond, the team was able to move on quickly even after their own manager/coach betrayed them. The team was the only thing that mattered. And I hope they never forget what Baek did and sacrificed for them. 

Story 


The first thing I loved about the show was the very snappy dialogues. I always looked forward to Baek's witty remarks to get rid of people pestering him like how he asked Se Young if he needed her approval before he can do his work when she was nagging him about his decisions. He was so good at it that Kyeong Min commented that he would probably get a rash if he lost an argument. 

But probably the greatest thing about the show was how it was broken down into little storylines with twists that would initially appear confusing but everything would make sense in the end. It made the show much easier to digest, especially for a viewer clueless about baseball like me. It helped too that Baek and his gang made things work against the odds and they always got the good guys. 

I loved how the Lim Dong Gyu trade seemed absurd and lopsided. But we all got the surprise of our lives when we find out that it included Doo Ki too. They got rid of the bad guy and they gave a perfect homecoming to the guy who was unjustly removed from the team a few years back by the very same guy who was traded for him. I also loved Baek's presentation that convinced everyone that Dong Gyu should be traded. 


It was also exciting to watch that controversy with Mr. Ko, the scouting coach. He was so adamant that he did nothing wrong. And for a while there, it appeared that they would not be able to get anyone to testify against him since their own player did not want to get involved. But thanks to that player from the Vikings who was persuaded by Baek to come forward. It was just weird that until the end, Mr. Ko insisted that he was treated unfairly despite the evidence against him. 

The assistant scouting coach proved to be a good decoy too. With his appearance and seemingly shady activities, it was easy to tag him as the bad guy. But it turned out that he was actually a good one, both as a person and as a scouting coach. 

I loved that conversation Se Young had with Mr. Ko when she said she admired him so much as a player for his honesty because he volunteered information that even the umpire did not see. And how she did not put down Mr. Ko merely as a bad guy. She acknowledged that life was much easier back then because it was all about baseball for him. 


I also loved the storyline about recruiting a foreign player. Everything seemed to lead them to a dead end. Nothing went their way. What they did not know was that the answer that they were looking for was with them right from the beginning. Their guide Robert Gil/Gil Chang Ju (Lee Yong Woo) turned out to be a former Korean national player who had a stint in MLB in the US. Although he had a controversial past since he skipped military training when he was naturalized as an American, Baek was able to make things happen. And that proved to be very rewarding when Robert was one of the few players who stood up for Baek when he was fired. 

I loved how keen Baek was with how he realized Robert Gil was into baseball - he gave good analysis and his hand was a baseball player's hand which he realized after he shook hands with him. 


Although the back-and-forth might be too circuitous for some, I enjoyed the renegotiation that the team had with its players. Baek's hands were tied but I loved how he managed to pull through. And how his dramatic sacrifice of giving up his annual salary for the players proved to be the best clapback to the parent company that asked him to reduce the players' salaries by 30%. He was able to sign all of the players and he even managed to get them a raise in the end. So, so smart. 


I loved Baek's realization after he was fired that it's okay not to be guarded all the time. He can trust and work with people who will have his back and would be willing to fight for him. I loved how Se Young devised that scheme to turn the public opinion against the parent company - that article about the real identity of Baek's brother and that presscon she had with the analysis manager (Kim Do Hyun as Yoo Kyeong Taek) to prove that there was nothing fishy about appointing the brother. How brave of them, really. 

And how that cancelled overseas training proved to be a blessing in disguise because they were able to use the money saved to hire competent people to help the team. That Vikings practice game was also a bonus. 

I also liked how Baek did not allow his prejudices to affect how he handled the doping issue. Yes, he had to listen to the rumors but he went beyond them by using his brother to analyze Doo Ki's performance. He knew that the parent company's mediocre director would have a very superficial analysis so he worked hard to prove him wrong. And it was great to be vindicated in the end. 

I loved that little backstory of how Dong Gyu and Doo Ki were actually good friends in the past. I was glad that they were able to fix things. I loved how Baek worked hard to get Dong Gyu back. And I was really excited for the two guys to play on the same team again. I was heartbroken when Doo Ki was traded and I loved how Baek got him back again. That was really a huge rollercoaster ride for me that ended well, fortunately. 


And the best part of the story was how Baek led his team. Yes, he probably had an unorthodox management style. He pushed them to their limits. But he did so to get something out of them. I loved how he helped the marketing manager Lim Mi Seon (Kim Soo Jin) revive her zest for work by challenging her to raise advertising funds so they can pay and get Dong Gyu back. Or how he helped the PR manager regain his confidence by acknowledging that the manager only did what he did because he did not want to lose his job. 

I loved how in the end, all of these pushing really paid off. The entire team pulled through and helped make the team viable for selling. They grew spines to resist against the injustices of the parent company.


And while I was really, really annoyed with Kyeong Min, I loved how this drama still had character development for him. It was a great realization for him that it's never wise to give up his integrity and principles to suck up to people who don't care for him at all. That team up with Baek to sell the Dreams made Kyeong Min a bit likable. And he seemed to have referred Baek to a new job too. 

Oppa was saying that the circuitous trades involving Dong Gyu and Doo Ki were not that realistic anymore. My brother was also complaining about why the players' salaries could be decreased and why the players' union could not support the players during negotiations. Yep, they're valid concerns, and I was just glad to know after a bit of research that that's not really the practice in South Korea. 


And I loved the ending too. I was glad that they did not force the show to have a happy ending. Although I was secretly hoping that they'd promote Baek as team president. I also loved how the show just teased us with Jae Hee and Se Young's love story but they never really pursued it. 

Over all, I loved Hot Stove League because it taught me a lot in a very entertaining and engaging way. 

Oppa says...4.5. 

Noona says...4.5. 

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