- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2020

At his house in Seoul, South Korea, Bryan Schelling poured a beer Tuesday afternoon, sat back and tuned in his first game of the new Korean baseball season. His Doosan Bears were taking on the LG Twins, and the 35-year-old English teacher was ready.

Thousands of miles east, across the Pacific, Seattle-area resident Dan Kurtz put his three kids to bed before settling for a marathon slate of Korean Baseball Organization games. On one device he had the Samsung Lions’ showdown with the N.C. Dinos streaming, while on another he followed four more opening day games simultaneously.

At long last, their favorite sport had started again.

The KBO has always had diehard fans, but the Korean league got the attention of a sports-starved world this week when it returned to action, thanks to South Korea’s apparently successful efforts to contain COVID-19.

Even American baseball junkies are tuning in for a fix, thanks to an 11th-hour deal between the league and ESPN.

True believers like Kurtz and Schelling say viewers just discovering Korean baseball are in for quite the thrill.

“While it is the same game being played on the field, it has its own unique, different baseball culture than here in the major leagues,” said Kurtz, who runs the fansite MyKBO.net. “Guys will just flip their bats … and there’s no beanball or retribution by the pitchers after that. And that just has blown people’s minds here in the Major League Baseball world: ‘Wow, that’s amazing they can do that.’

“While it’s the same game, it’s a different unwritten rule and a different baseball culture over there.”

A league unlike any other

For those just coming to the KBO, Mr. Schelling says the games aren’t the same without the roaring energy that usually fills each ballpark. Because of the virus, the league is playing without fans for now.

Gone are spirited chants and songs that echo through the stadium for each at-bat.

Instead, the South Korean league, which was delayed five weeks because of the pandemic — the same one that has sidelined sports in the U.S. and around the world — has implemented rules intended prevent the spread of COVID-19 while still being able to play baseball.

Players get regular temperature checks before and after games, while umpires and base coaches wear masks on the field. High fives? They’re banned. Autographs? Forget it. Even spitting, that old baseball staple, is out in this new, coronavirus-aware game.

Over the next few weeks, MLB will likely study the KBO model as it looks to relaunch.

But for now, the conditions between the countries are vastly different.

South Korea reported zero new domestic cases for the virus as of Wednesday for the third straight day, while the U.S. saw more than 70,000 cases in that same span.

With no fans in the stands, clubs in Korea have tried to manufacture energy during games.

The SK Wyverns filled their bleachers with cardboard cutouts (wearing masks of course) to create the impression of a crowded stadium.

Cheerleaders (real people, but also wearing masks) danced for rows of empty seats.

Scoreboards at each of the league’s five opening-day games featured video messages from supporters rooting for their teams.

But none of that comes close to replicating the insane energy of a pre-pandemic KBO game, according to followers.

“During every home inning, when the home team is batting, most people are standing up and dancing and following the cheerleaders,” said Rob Smith, a Gwangju resident who roots for the Kia Tigers. “The stadium during home at-bats is nuts. It’s never quiet.”

You think the anthem “Baby Shark” was a phenom for Gerardo Parra and the Washington Nationals last season? In South Korea, every starter has his own song customized and chanted throughout every plate appearance.

Nationals first baseman Eric Thames spent three years in Korea with the NC Dinos. He’s one of the KBO’s biggest success stories, hitting 117 home runs before jumping back to MLB. Thames first joined the KBO on a one-year, $800,000 deal and when he eventually returned to the majors in 2016, he had signed a three-year, $16 million with the Milwaukee Brewers. 

He still lights up when he talks about playing overseas.

There was his cheer song, for one. It was a 36-second crowd-sourced banger, guaranteed to get stuck in your head after one listen.

The lyrics, translated from the original Korean, went something like: “Eric. Thames. Crush that ball! Eric. Thames. Crush that ball! Eric Thames Home run! Oh oh oh.”

“You’ll see a lot of fans say our games in the States are boring,” Thames said. “It’s quiet during the at-bats. Unless a hitter is walking up (or) there’s a big hit, there’s silence. Over there, it’s just constant … drums or trumpets or something going on.

“I do miss it,” he added later. “I miss the fan energy.”

Getting hooked

As a young man in 1980s, Leon DeHaven, now 73, was stationed in Seoul with the U.S. Army when the KBO hosted its first game. When tickets sold out, he found a way in by covering the event for the Armed Forces Network.

From there, he was hooked. Even after moving back to the United States, the Arizona resident kept up with the KBO. Last year, Mr. DeHaven went back to Korea with a small group to attend a few games.

“I started following Korean baseball in ‘82,” DeHaven said. “Not easy to do.”

But DeHaven has remained a passionate fan, even with the time difference between the two countries and the occasional difficulty at finding information about the league. On Tuesday,  DeHaven stayed up late to watch ESPN’s Lions-Dinos broadcast — catching three innings until he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer.

So what makes someone stay on top of the league, despite the challenges? The answer is simple: They love it.

Washington state native Robert Shadlow, 65, became obsessed with the KBO as a teenager, when his Japanese mother bought him baseball cards featuring players from around the world. It sparked an interest and so, Shadlow used to read a weekly Korean newspaper at his local library to find out whatever he could.

Kurtz started My KBO in 2003, a few years after attending his first game while studying abroad in Seoul. The Korean-American said he wanted to provide the stats, schedules and results he had trouble finding from other English-based websites. “I just enjoy the league for it being different,” he said.

That fondness, for some, applies to the KBO’s team names — with the 10 clubs named after companies rather than the city they’re in.

“My first game in 2009, I just thought it was kind of funny the team names were the Kia Tigers versus the LG Twins,” says Seoul resident and Dublin native Andrew Martin Farrell. “Big company and scary animal against another sort of big company and a scary animal or something like that.”


Those who watch the KBO acknowledge the quality of play isn’t at an MLB-type level. Supporters say think more Double-A to Triple-A — but, they say, that’s part of the charm.

Inside the My KBO Facebook group, there’s even a term used to describe the unpredictability of each game, from the head-shaking errors to dramatic late-inning comebacks: “KBOness.”

A blooper-reel online includes a player scoring from second on a wild pitch, a bullpen meltdown and a wild 10th-inning that results in a walk-off — all culled from one game.

“You take it with a grain of salt,” Smith said.

“That’s what makes it fun,” Farrell said.

Smith and Farrell said bullpens regularly implode in the KBO — teaching fans not to turn a game off until it’s truly over. Think the 2019 Nationals to the extreme. Smith recalled a Tigers game in which they blew a 10-run lead from the seventh inning onward.

Still, there’s an appeal to the KBO and American newcomers may recognize some of the players and managers. Former Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams, for instance, now holds the same role for the Tigers. Former Baltimore Orioles starter Aaron Brooks also plays for the club.

Korean teams are allowed three foreign players per roster. They play 144 games, which are all scheduled despite the delay to start the season.

No one knows for sure when MLB will return. In the meantime, KBO fans will gladly welcome the new recruits.

On ESPN 2, a rebroadcast of the Lions-Dios game Tuesday drew 103,000 viewers. In Korea, the audience was much larger as an average of 1.5 million streamed the games online,  according to the Korea Herald. Viewership also increased on Korean networks.

“Once the MLB does start, I’m sure that there will be a large drop off in the interest in the league,” Farrell said. “But you hope some people say, ‘Hey, this is really cool’ and continue following it.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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