Stove League: Episode 1
“Hot stove league” refers to the off-season of baseball when teams get ready for the next season. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in as this baseball drama isn’t exactly about baseball, but rather the politics that take place around a failing team in the time between seasons. However, I think this premiere was perfectly balanced and whether you love baseball or not, it was an enjoyable jaunt into the inner mechanics of professional baseball with a lot of fun characters at the helm.
NOTE: This is just a first episode recap.
EPISODE 1: “Dreams the Loser”
A man we’ll come to know as BAEK SEUNG-SOO (Namgoong Min) flips through radio stations, landing on coverage of a baseball game. It’s the final game of the season for baseball team Dreams and it’s quickly made apparent from the sportscasters that they’re the worst team in the league — and have been for some years. One player still manages to shine, though, and the crowd cheers as IM DONG-GYU (Jo Han-seon) steps up to the plate.
Seung-soo arrives at the stadium as Dong-gyu hits a home run and the crowd erupts. When Dreams takes the outfield, however, pitcher Jang Jin-woo struggles to throw a decent pitch and the outfielders repeatedly fail to catch the ball. The team continues to flounder as the game progresses, causing fans to leave in disappointment. When even the mascot slumps onto the ground, it’s the final straw for management team member LEE SE-YOUNG (Park Eun-bin) and she storms out into the stands to reprimand him.
No sooner does HAN JAE-HEE (Jo Byung-kyu) remove the mascot head, than Se-young appears behind him and shoves it back on his shoulders. Jae-hee whirls around as Se-young barks that people who receive jobs through nepotism should work twice as hard to prove their worth. Jae-hee whines that this isn’t even his job (the regular mascot is sick) and he doesn’t see much point sweating for a team that’s losing so miserably.
Raising her hand to smack him again, Se-young freezes at Jae-hee’s frantic gestures and turns to see a little boy watching them from the next row. Se-young and Jae-hee awkwardly laugh and join into the team cheer but it doesn’t matter because a fight breaks out in the Dreams dugout. All attention falls on the fracas between bench coach Lee Chul-min and pitching coach Choi Young-gu as the players try to pull them apart.
Se-young makes a beeline for the dugout with Jae-hee hot on her heels while Seung-soo looks on with a bemused expression as all the children in the stadium start to cry. His phone rings and he tells the caller he’ll be out in 10 minutes. Se-young and Jae-hee run in but their shouts are drowned out by the screaming men. Picking up a bat, Se-young slams it against a locker, finally silencing the brawling team.
“Kids are watching,” she cries, “Is this really who we are? This is the last game of the season.” The men have the grace to at least look ashamed as they disperse. The game ends with a dismal score of 14-3. Some fans hurl insults as they leave the stadium and half the players snicker. Returning to the locker room, pitcher Jin-woo chides the laughing players. He’s backed up by Dong-gyu, who quickly diffuses the situation by suggesting they go for drinks. No one moves, though, until Jin-woo agrees they can go home.
At a restaurant, Seung-soo meets with the person who’d called, YOO JUNG-IN. She smiles as he takes a picture of his food before digging in and asks what brings Seung-soo to the stadium. He just shrugs and Jung-in says she made marmalade that his mother likes, adding that she was thinking of visiting her this weekend. Seung-soo tells her it’s too far and she should mail it, adding that a visit will just make his mother worry something happened.
Seung-soo says Jung-in only needs to call once in a while to assure her everything is going well. Jung-in doesn’t argue and her attention is drawn to a news report that a women’s handball team has disbanded despite just winning their league. She sighs that Seung-soo didn’t tell her his team was disbanded again but he points out it wouldn’t have made a difference. She asks if he’s found another team and Seung-soo replies, “I’m sure there’s some place in this world that needs me.”
Meanwhile, Dreams’ management team has also gone out for end-of-the-season drinks and Se-young partakes heavily. The General Manager announces that he’s resigning and explains that someone has to take responsibility for the continued decline of their team. The others point out it’s not his fault, arguing that it’s the athletes that play and the Head Coach is responsible for them.
“We are at fault,” Se-young mumbles. Another manager takes offense and snaps that she did her job well, it’s the team that failed. The General Manager is firm in his decision, however, and takes his leave. The other managers return to their meal, but Se-young swipes tears from her eyes. Afterwards, she returns home and tries to sneak in, but is caught by her mother.
Mom tsks that she went out drinking even though the team lost and Se-young sniffs that’s just the way things are in her field. “No one forced you to work in that field,” Mom quips and Se-young deflates, wondering if she should quit. “As if,” Mom tuts, shuffling off to bed. Se-young makes it to her own room and flops on her bed. Looking up at a photo of her and her father at a Dreams game she vows not to quit.
Seung-soo also returns home where a young man is asleep on the couch. Stepping past a wheelchair, Seung-soo takes the book on becoming a post office worker from the sleeping young man. After tucking him in with a blanket, Seung-soo quietly washes the dishes.
The next morning, Se-young returns to work in better spirits, snapping at Jae-hee to stop watching variety shows at his desk as she passes. Head Coach Yoon catches her before she reaches her office and asks if she’s heard any news (about his job). Se-young promises to contact him when she knows anything and he leaves with his head hung.
Jae-hee sighs that they’re basically giving him false hope, but Se-young points out they can’t hire a new coach until they replace the General Manager. She shakes off her negative thoughts and Jae-hee tells her the CEO was looking for her. Se-young reports to KO KANG-SUN and immediately asks about the replacement GM. CEO Go hands her a stack of papers and tells her to prepare interview questions.
Se-young blinks back, having thought the GM was already chosen. CEO Go says he’s narrowed down the candidates but wants Se-young’s opinion. She starts to argue against interviewing her future superior but CEO Go says everyone always has a lot to say when they’re drunk, but never remember when they’re sober so he recorded it once. Se-young had said that she hated nonprofessionals and while she tries to backpedal that he’s a professional, CEO Go says this is his last year.
He continues that Se-young will likely stay on and so they’ll do the interviews together. As if on cue, there’s a knock on the door and the first interview begins. Se-young is immediately impressed by the first two candidates as both have valuable strengths and say the right things. CEO Go warns her they’re not done yet and calls for the next candidate, Seung-soo.
Seeing his credentials as GM for a handball team, CEO Go asks if Seung-soo likes baseball. Seung-soo replies that he at least knows the rules. With an awkward laugh, CEO Go asks if he’s seen the Dreams play. Seung-soo says he’s seen videos online and CEO Go assures him those videos were edited to make the team look bad. Seung-soo muses the Dreams will likely continue to lose, even if they formed a new team.
Se-young questions his reasoning and Seung-soo lists that the coaches have divided into factions that won’t be resolved by talking and neither side respects Head Coach Yoon, the negative image makes players embarrassed to join the team, and the lacking facilities diminish morale. Seung-soo admits he’d considered his words might be offensive, but thought it was better than looking like he was unaware of their problems. “Of course,” he says as Se-young and CEO Go frown at him, “I’m questioning if I was wrong.”
CEO Go brusquely thanks him for the interview and says they definitely weren’t offended. Seung-soo politely takes his leave and as soon as the door shuts behind him, both CEO Go and Se-young grumble at his audacity. Se-young is still griping when she leaves the office, freezing when she realizes Seung-soo hadn’t left — he’d stopped to inspect the photos displayed on the walls.
Seung-soo’s expression is ever-impassive, but Se-young winces and forces a smile as she approaches him. She asks if he sees any strengths in the team and Seung-soo says there are even bigger problems. He asks if she wants the Dreams to become stronger and when Se-young immediately agrees, he asks if everyone thinks that way. Se-young is confused, but Seung-soo leaves without elaborating.
Se-young meets with the former GM for lunch and it’s apparent she’s spent the entire meal complaining about Seung-soo. Se-young admits that Seung-soo led a handball team to victory, but argues that handball and baseball are completely different. “If we fail again,” the former GM says, “I want us to fail in a new way… instead of failing for the same reasons.” Se-young tells him not to try persuading her, adding she has no power anyway.
Her phone rings and Se-young announces they’ve decided and she has to go back now. She tells the former GM that in her opinion he was the best and they part ways. Back at the office, CEO Go is introducing the new GM to the other managers and Se-young’s jaw drops when she sees Seung-soo. “What the f…” Se-young balks before catching herself and weakly finishing, “…funny friend.” Hee.
Seung-soo has no reaction but CEO Go gives her a look and pulls her back. CEO Go continues that Seung-soo is the Winning Hitman, and he’s here to win. Seung-soo vaguely agrees and announces he’ll learn as he goes and start meetings tomorrow. CEO Go leaves and Se-young chases after him, leaving Jae-hee to conclude the meeting with applause. Se-young demands why Seung-soo was chosen and CEO Go says he wanted to consider her opinion but the orders came from over his head and on cue, Junior Managing Director, KWON KYUNG-MIN (Oh Jung-se) strides into the office.
Kyung-min says he believes Seung-soo is the man they need and Se-young is forced to bite her tongue. Seung-soo joins them and Kyung-min proudly introduces himself, adding that he’s the nephew of the team’s owner. He assures Seung-soo he’s not revealing his connection because he plans to interfere with the team, but to explain why he’s so cocky. “so just forget that I’m the nephew of the team’s owner,” Kyung-min grins, “Just think of me as the owner himself.” Heh.
Afterwards, Se-young shows Seung-soo around the building. She tells him the previous GM fixed everything up, and fondly grips a repaired net that the former GM had fixed himself due to lack of funds. “What a great man he was,” Seung-soo says and then, to Se-young’s bewilderment, adds, “I’m going to go eat.” The pair sits down to eat and Seung-soo carefully takes a photo of his food before eating. Se-young questions him about his career, saying he must know a lot about handball. Seung-soo agrees, adding he’s knowledgeable in wrestling and hockey as well.
Se-young is curious how he jumped from sport to sport and Seung-soo reveals his teams all got disbanded, even after he led them to victory. He says that doesn’t happen in baseball, though. “Even the worst teams don’t starve in baseball,” Seung-soo notes. Se-young snips that they don’t aim to place last when they. She wonders if he plans to make their team win as well… but dismisses the idea. Seung-soo just stares at her for a long moment and returns to his food without comment.
Se-young sits down for a meeting with the rest of the managers to prepare a list of players that won’t be returning. They wonder what to do with Jin-woo whose skills have declined, but has been on the team the longest. Se-young suggests transitioning him to a coaching position but another manager argues that no one will want to learn from a coach who can’t pitch.
Meanwhile, Jin-woo is practicing pitching to the point of bleeding. He hears someone else in the room and finds Dong-gyu in the batting cage. Jin-woo teases that he’s looking to earn more money but Dong-gyu laughs that he has to work hard to make Jin-woo into a winning pitcher. Jin-woo guesses that’s why Dong-gyu strikes out when Jin-woo pitches for him. Jin-woo playfully twists Dong-gyu’s arm and Dong-gyu says he hopes they can retire together.
While fetching a drink from the vending machine, Se-young is approached by Dong-gyu who whines that he was gonna buy her the more expensive option. She gripes that he’s rich enough to buy her one from the cafe. Dong-gyu asks about the new GM and if they’ll be keeping Head Coach Yoon. Se-young doesn’t know but adds that it’s not for him to know anyway. Dong-gyu cheekily suggests he’s earned it by seniority but Se-young says they don’t interfere with his training schedule. He runs off and Se-young fondly calls him a brat before turning and jumping at the appearance of Jin-woo. He asks when the released players list will be posted, guessing he’s a candidate for it.
Se-young repeats that she can’t say anything but Jin-woo knows and asks if it’s difficult to become a coach. Se-young says she’ll know more after going over things with Seung-soo. Jin-woo nods and turns to leave, but adds that he’s been working even harder to do better next year. Se-young awkwardly cheers him on. Meanwhile,Dong-gyu drops in on Seung-soo to offer his insight before the released players list is finalized.
Seung-soo takes him up on it and Dong-gyu says there’s no point discussing the good players as the list is for those not returning. Dong-gyu mentions Jin-woo and Dong-gyu says he works hard… but won’t be improving. He coldly states that Jin-woo can’t perform like he used to and his presence makes the younger players feel uncomfortable. He then launches into a rundown of the players’ skills as Seung-soo listens with an unreadable smile.
Pitching Coach Choi and his posse sit at a bar, waiting for Seung-soo to join them for his welcome party. They grin that Seung-soo promised to call when he arrived, taking it as confirmation that he’s coming to their get-together in favor or the one Bench Coach Lee is holding elsewhere… thereby ensuring that Coach Choi will be the next Head Coach. Meanwhile, Coach Lee and his cronies are having a near identical conversation at their welcome party for Seung-soo.
Seung-soo arrives at the bar where Coach Lee and co are waiting. Coach Lee eagerly pours Seung-soo a drink as he bluntly asks if this is Coach Lee’s faction. The men feign ignorance so Seung-soo points out it would’ve been easier to have a joint welcome party instead of two parties at the same time, on the same day. Coach Lee says he had no idea but Seung-soo picks up on his referring to Coach Lee as “those” guys and declares he’ll be meeting Coach Choi as well.
Seung-soo makes his way over to Coach Choi’s party and explains he’s late because he stopped at Coach Lee’s party. On of the men comment that he’s busy playing both sides and Seung-soo blinks back innocently, “I thought you were the same team.” The next day, Seung-soo conducts his meeting, opening with the announcement that he’s discussed things with the CEO and although they didn’t agree on everything, and he’s willing to listen to their opinions (for reference), his decision will not change.
He starts by declaring Head Coach Yoo will continue his position and sign a three-year contract. The managers balk and ask what the fan’s will think but Seung-soo retorts that the fans shoulder no responsibility, while his job is on the line. Besides, they can’t afford to hire someone new and promoting from within only exacerbates the feud between Coach Lee and Coach Choi. Furthermore, despite the faction war, he plans to keep both sides and a flashback reveals he’d told as much to the coaches, with the caveat that if they’re going to fight, they produce results.
Seung-soo’s final decision, and the only one he has yet to get CEO Go’s approval for, is the trade off of Dong-gyu. The office is an uproar as the managers declare him crazy for wanting to pawn off their best player but Seung-soo remains unmovable, instead zoning in on the coach sneakily texting. Dong-gyu receives the snitch text while at the Golden Glove awards moments before being declared the recipient. Taking the stage, he uses his acceptance speech to declare his intention to play for the Dreams until he retires.
That night, a masked Dong-gyu pulls into a parking lot and starts attacking a car windshield with a bat. Once he’s made a hole, Dong-gyu chucks his award onto the front seat along with an envelope of money. The following morning, Seung-soo steps out to find his wrecked car. He sighs at the packet of money and his expression returns to neutral as he looks at the Dong-gyu’s name emblazoned on the award.
It’s a little known fact that I have a deep fondness for baseball stories, so I was thrilled when this popped up on the drama roster. After reading the premise, I was a little dubious that this would veer heavily into the politics (and it still might) but the first hour was perfectly balanced and rather than feel drained by all the exposition, I’m really excited about the characters and what’s going to happen next!
I was immediately on edge when Jo Han-sun appeared after watching him be such a creepy baddie earlier this year in Possessed. Dong-gyu’s playful banter with Jin-woo and flirtation with Se-young had me wondering if perhaps it was just residual feelings from dramas past… until he totally flipped script by throwing Jin-woo under the bus to Seung-soo. One minute he’s wishing to retire together and the next he’s plotting to get his “friend” fired! The betrayal! Were I not to already have every confidence in Seung-soo, I’d be totally behind the decision to boot Dong-gyu solely for him being a two-faced jerkwad… which he then further proved by throwing a tantrum — and his trophy.
I’m not sure what exactly Dong-gyu’s endgame is. Maybe he just enjoys being the big fish in a little pond — the only player worth his salt on a team of losers and getting monopolizing the fans’ love. Or perhaps there’s more yet to be revealed. Regardless, he’s not to be trusted and Seung-soo zoned in on that immediately. Despite the outrage his decisions have spurred from his co-workers, I think Seung-soo made the best possible choices. He’s right that keeping Head Coach Yoo was the only real choice when they can’t hire someone new and picking from Coach Choi and Coach Lee would result in half the team being happy and the other half bitter.
Furthermore, letting the two sides duke it out under the condition that they do so productively was also crazy smart. Turning a blind clearly didn’t work, and removing one faction to appease the other cuts half your team. This is a way to keep the fighting controlled as well as return the focus to making the team stronger. So while Se-young and the other managers may feel he’s not taking things seriously or knows what he’s doing… I think Seung-soo is on there side and knows exactly what he’s doing. Knowing the rules of the sport you’re working in is great, but knowing people is far more useful in Seung-soo’s position… and that’s why I think he’s been able to transition through so many sports and still produce results.
I can’t wait for Se-young to see that and come around because with her passion and Seung-soo’s smarts, they’re gonna make a bomb team. And as I suspect Kyung-min is out to destroy the Dreams, they’re going to need to work together if they want the team to survive.