Hot Stove League (2020) A Review

On the surface this winner of the prestigious 2020 BaekSang Arts Award for Best Drama might not appear to have much popular appeal. Beyond the baseball backdrop, however, is a profoundly human story that covers a whole gamut of life experiences in and out of sports. The drama has a tremendous amount to offer in terms of storytelling, performances and strong production values even for someone like me who knows next to nothing about the game. It’s the kind of story that grabs you from the start with its universal themes about perseverance, camaraderie, teamwork and loss. Of course it doesn’t hurt that spearheading the narrative is a master strategist. On an immediate level it is a baseball story as one navigates through the industry jargon, the rules of the sport and be utterly bamboozled while the experts crunch the statistics. But if that was all it was I certainly wouldn’t have binged watched it in two days. On another level baseball is the vehicle through which experiences of ordinary folk are played out as they wrestle through a myriad of challenges and decisions that are familiar with anyone from different walks of life. It is certainly no accident that the team spotlighted here is called Dreams.

“Hot Stove League” refers to the off-season period in which the professional teams work behind the scenes in preparation for the next season. For a baseball ignoramus and a non-follower of spectator sports like myself, it’s a fascinating glimpse at the complexity of managing professional sports. The delightful Namgoong Min is the outsider here, the newly appointed General Manager of Dreams which has been placed at the bottom of the league table for the past 4 years. Baek Seung-su, a newcomer to baseball, is selected by the acting owner (O Jung-se) for his ability (and reputation) to revive sports teams only to see them dissolved after taking them to a championship win. The parent company Jaesong Group desperately wants to disband Dreams after incurring serious losses and failing to sell it off after several attempts. Seung-su’s primary adversary is the acting owner, nephew of the chairman of Jaesong, Kwon Kyung-min. A good proportion of the drama sees the two facing off in a battle of wits. One wants to build something from what’s left of the Dreams but the other wants to dismantle the entire structure.

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