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Hot Stove League (2019-2020)


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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.

 

Crudely put, Seung-su is an all-round fix-it guy who wants to win and knows how to do it. He has his own unorthodox, indomitable way of doing things that see him knocking heads with the departmental team leaders and ruffling feathers everywhere he goes. Very soon after, Lee Se-young (Park Eun-bin) cottons on that there’s more to the new general manager that meets the eye. While he doesn’t know much about baseball, she might just learn a thing or two about managing an organization and people from him. It occurred to me somewhere along the way that he is cut from the same cloth as Mary Poppins. He’s a heaven-sent opportunity to pull this unhappy ragtag of egos… together into something that could ultimately resemble a team or… God forbid… a family. But what I think he really does is give everyone attached to Dreams hope for the future. Little by little Baek Seung-su earns the grudging respect of his subordinates and his rivals.

 

One of my favourite aspects of this drama and what gives it high rewatch value is the way it delves into organisational dynamics. To begin with the right kind of leadership as exemplified by Baek Seung-su, makes all the difference. So what constitutes good leadership? This is explored within the confines of baseball management as Seung-su navigates his way through the minefield and cleans up the mess left behind by others who had all the good-will in the world but perhaps none of the savvy or the ruthlessness. It is immediately apparent that there are benefits to being the outsider. It gives one a different perspective, a set of fresh eyes to see the glaring problems that the insiders are blind to due to long-term relationships and a desire to maintain the status quo.

 

The problems are many. From without and within. Not long after Seung-su’s arrival on the scene it becomes clear that there are systemic internal issues that have undermined the team’s ability to even be moderately successful like prima donnas in the ranks and corruption among the staff. A team is more than just a composite of individuals coming together for a common cause. It has to be built and maintained with the right touches and a proper sense of balance with some acknowledgement of the need for a diverse skill set. Seung-su doesn’t shy away from any challenge. There are minor villains within the ranks and from time to time the razor sharp general manager takes time to bare his teeth to do what’s best for the team’s survival and although not necessarily his own.

 

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It never occurred to me until now that recruitment of players in team sports is so much like a chess game-jigsaw puzzle. But I was impressed with the need for strategic thinking in that area. It isn’t enough just to grab the best players in the league but to have the right players for the team. Not only should candidates pull their weight but they should be able to make a significant contribution with their skill set. It’s as much about present needs as it is an investment in the future of the club. Of course skill and experience aren't everything if there are serious character flaws.

 

There’s a key moment between Kwon Kyung-min and his newly appointed right-hand man, Jang Woo-seok, that he poached from the recruitment department that suggests what the fuss is all about. The two men look down from a balcony to see a group of protestors chanting on the unfairness of a recent player trade. Kyung-min looks on in wondering why people bother when there are more pressing matters to attend to. “Isn’t watching baseball just a hobby?” The response he gets is this, “There are some people who bet their ways of making a living on a hobby.” For many, baseball isn’t just a spectator sport, it’s a way of getting through the grind of eking a living. Perhaps an escape,  or maybe a pleasure that makes living worthwhile. Baseball isn’t just a national pastime, it’s a way of life. This brief exchange highlights how an activity that’s not work-related can be a source of inspiration to the wider public.

 

I also enjoyed Seung-su’s relationship with the operations manager of the team, Se-young. The two bounce off each other in finely tuned perfection as colleagues who have much to learn from each other about people and running an organization. They complement one another and their collaboration during different crises gives multiple perspectives on how an issue can be looked at and resolved. Namgoong MIn, always a treasure, interacts well with Park Eun-bin who holds her own, more or less as his second-in-command. She supports him where she needs to and pushes back when she has to as someone who has been part of the furniture for some time.

 

The show also does an excellent job of humanising Seung-su with his backstory and via his relationship with his younger brother that he’s overly protective of. There’s no doubt he falls off the tsundere mould but Namgoong Min’s nuanced performance makes the complexities of the character’s personality convincing. This is a man who is driven to create miracles because of the constant weight he carries on his shoulders. He too has lessons that he can learn from Dreams even while he does his darnedest to get the best outcome for them with the resources he has at his disposal.

 

This brilliance of this show lies primarily in its use of the ensemble cast to tell a poignant, heartwarming and uplifting story. In that regard it reminds me of the delightful Prison Playbook. The show runners do a great job with the cast and getting viewers invested in the lives of the administrative staff, the players, the coaches and their networks. Even Kwon Kyung-min is no one-dimensional adversary. It’s unabashedly a feel-good drama with the right mix of intrigue, conflict and humour sprinkled right through the story. I would go so far as to say that this is one of the best things I’ve seen in the last 12 months. And honestly, who doesn't love a good underdog-overcoming-adversity story?

 

Spoiler


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Plot/Story: 9.5

Storytelling: 10

Acting/Cast: 10

Production Values: 10

Rewatch Value: 9

 

 

@SnowBlob

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I'm so glad that I gave this drama a go. For me it's indeed the best drama I watched in 2020! 

It has my most fav genre, although I can't find a name for it, but a drama where a seemingly underdog team consist of lost individuals at first and with the right leader manage to gather the 'best' people for the jobs/roles and then become the best team. And not only that, a drama where it gives each 'side' character a good amount of storyline so we become invested in each of them. I've seen this type of drama in Jdramas such as Medical Dragon, Rookies and the last one (although not too similar) is Grand Maison Tokyo but never saw one in Kdramaland. Even when I started watching HSL, I didn't start with having the expectation that this would be this type of drama. So I was soooo ecstatic when I found out (while watching) that it's indeed such a drama~ 

 

@40somethingahjumma summed the drama up really nicely (sorry to cut your posts)

22 hours ago, 40somethingahjumma said:

 

This brilliance of this show lies primarily in its use of the ensemble cast to tell a poignant, heartwarming and uplifting story. ... The show runners do a great job with the cast and getting viewers invested in the lives of the administrative staff, the players, the coaches and their networks... It’s unabashedly a feel-good drama with the right mix of intrigue, conflict and humour sprinkled right through the story. I would go so far as to say that this is one of the best things I’ve seen in the last 12 months. And honestly, who doesn't love a good underdog-overcoming-adversity story?

 

 

It's true that we became 'invested in the lives of the' other characters as we watched the drama... I think this is because the drama took its time to explore these side characters story and so as viewers we got to know them and couldn't help but to root for them as well. With a few 'baddies' (or so they seemed at the beginning), we also got to follow their journeys to the point of their characters' 'redemption' and how good that feels when someone you thought was bad turned to be good and became a faithful supporter of the team~ so it's indeed a feel-good drama! 

 

Don't read the spoiler if you haven't seen the drama

Spoiler

It's sad that Baek Seung Soo had to leave Dreams in the end T_T . I wouldn't mind another season with him dealing with another sport team but then I suppose it can't be named Hot Stove League 2 since HSL is about baseball. Unless second season is made to be about BSS returning to manage Dreams after a few years etc :P 

 

@Jane If you're interested, you can read the review :) But maybe that will just increase your expectation before watching it hahahahah

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3 hours ago, SnowBlob said:

 

@Jane If you're interested, you can read the review :) But maybe that will just increase your expectation before watching it hahahahah

 

It does, but I trust you and @40somethingahjumma's tastes! Will watch when it comes up on Netflix (great push factor too).

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@SnowBlob

I'm glad you mentioned Team Medical Dragon because I had thought the same thing while I was watching it and forgot to mention it while I was putting the review together. I love both shows not just because they are about underdogs overcoming adversity but they do such a good job of showing what building a team and genuine teamwork looks like. It was also what I appreciated about Iryu. On some level it was a cheesy J drama about surgeons doing high risk surgeries like superheroes but the feel-good side didn't just come from them saving lives but it also was about Asada pulling together a group of people of such disparate experiences and skills by sheer force of his own personality and his ability to see what others can't. What he does with Ijuin, especially, is fantastic because his story is one of the rookie-underdog who isn't an immediately obvious choice but under Asada's tutelage, he blooms. I think Asada also chooses him because he hasn't been completely consumed by the corrupt system yet. More important than having the "right" skills, he is patient-centred and immensely teachable. Like Hot Stove League, the key characters all have their own story and baggage from which some find redemption or a new lease on life in being part of Team Iryu.

 

It's just occurred to me that I find great pleasure in these sorts of team-building dramas... whether it's located in sports, medicine or even in heist dramas. If you like this kind of dramas, there's Mad Dog (loosely based on Leverage) and the official K adaptation of Leverage. Not sure how you feel about crime in general but the OCN dramas Task Force 38, Bad Guys and TEN might be a few worth your while looking into.

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@40somethingahjumma LOL~ I have accepted the fact that most of the Jdramas I like are cheesy :PsyWhat: and most of the leads have the superhero type of character hahahhaha. 

 

Actually I have watched all the dramas you mentioned. Didn't quite like Mad Dog (not sure why). I did watch it from the beginning to the end but didn't leave me with any strong impression. I do though..love Bad Guys (1 and NOT 2...season 2 was just urrrghhh) and 38 Task Force. Between the 2, I think Bad Guys are the closest in terms of feeling about building a great team to achieve something (in a sense like HSL and Iryu) but didn't quite get that from 38. I think the difference is that in 38, the drama only delved into the two males leads stories. Mmm..take for example Iryu 1, they took the time in each episode to explore each character and how each character came about to join the team; while HSL, most of the characters were already inside the team but then we got to see the stories of how they changed to be better. 38... not really. And I think if I'm not mistaken, same with TEN? But can't say for sure because I watched TEN years ago so can't exactly remember the details :jkbtsthink: 

 

Now perhaps in the future when you feel like watching another Jdrama having similar theme to Iryu and HSL, please try Rookies (it's another team building drama and its focus is baseball!). In Rookies, the focus is more on how this passionate-but-has-no-idea-about-baseball teacher, once again incites the passion for baseball in the students who're (or once were) part of the baseball club. But... just be ready to have extreme degree of cheesiness :lol:

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I just finished watching HSL like 15 minutes ago. Didnt know there was a review thread for the drama, stumbled across here while searching for the podcasts. Am not a good writer but will share how I feel about the drama since the feeling's still fresh & clear. Hahaha

 

Hot Stove League is a drama I put on hold. I have read great reviews while the show was airing but I had to shove it in my waiting list cause there were many great dramas to watch at that time. After winning Baeksang Best TV Drama, I convinced myself to watch it but got busy. Then just out of nowhere earlier this week while scrolling Netflix, I saw the thumbnail & decided to give it a go.  And boy, am I late to the party!

 

The drama is indeed amazing and fully deserves the Baeksang. I am a sucker of dramas whose storyline involve teamwork & group dynamics of the cast. HSL is very rewarding. I am a sports fan btw and I have never been interested in the management affairs of any sports club. I tend to focus only on the players, coaches and the game itself. But this drama conveys the story of what happens behind the scenes and made me appreciate the hard work everyone puts on the line for the team. Well the drama can be overexaggerating at times but it gives me a new perspective.

 

The main cast did really deliver. NGM always do. I also admire the operations manager actress. I have watched her act in Age of Youth 1&2 and I must say she is a a versatile actress. The supporting casts also were superb. I like how there was no forced loveline. The bickering between the OM and her assistant  or the care the OM has for General Manager were enough.

 

You guys mentioned about Mad Dog, Bad Guys & Sqaud 38. I love those dramas too esp TaskForce38. 

 

 

The end. Haha. Back to searching for the podcast (DDSSLS.hihi)

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So far my top 2020 K-Dramas are 1. Hospital Playlist 2. Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim Season Two 3. CLOY 4. IONTBO

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