Josh Lindblom, pitcher of the Milwaukee Brewers, did not expect much last weekend when he turned on his television in search of sports. But what he found was a little too much.
“There were two guys out there playing Tetris against each other,” said Lindblom with a laugh.
But now, American sports fans hungry for live games can find a salvation from an unlikely source: South Korean baseball. The Korea Baseball Organization season begins Tuesday and ESPN has announced plans to broadcast live matches.
Lindblom, 32, planned to watch. The right-hander, who is currently facing the pandemic with his family in Lafayette, Indiana, has launched four and a half seasons in the South Korean League, winning consecutive Choi Dong awards (awarded to the best pitcher in the league) in 2018 and 2019 and the most useful player award in the league last year.
On behalf of baseball fans wanting live action, the New York Times asked Lindblom and a group of insiders for advice on how best to savor the South Korean brand of baseball.
“People are clearly looking for something to encourage,” said Lindblom, “something to follow other than the news. “
The league has a large pool of talent.
Baseball on the other side of the world is still baseball – although spitting on the pitch has been temporarily banned. But American fans will notice subtle differences and quirks in the South Korean game.
There is, for example, a ton of variability in talent on K.B.O. Waiting lines. A team could line up a player who could be a Major League Baseball star, but also play someone who barely makes an M.L.B. bench and others that would work best in the minor leagues.
“There are 65 or 70 high schools playing baseball in Korea, so they take advantage of a much smaller talent pool,” said Aaron Tassano, an international scout for the Samsung Lions, whose opening game at the season against the NC Dinos aired on ESPN Tuesday.
The K.B.O. is considered an attacking league with comfortable ball fields. But the league has taken steps in recent years to divert the advantage of its batter, including “removing the juice” from the ball and expanding the notoriously small hitting area.
And while the Korean game has more firepower and players are turning to fences than the Japanese league, it could still seem to fans as “a refreshing old school,” said Tassano.
“There is a lot of noise and theft,” he said. “Their game was not supported by the launch angles and the rotation speed to the degree that it has here. I love these things about the game here, but there is a purity in the game that I enjoy. “
No fan is allowed, draining color.
Everyone interviewed for this story criticized the same thing about the current prospects for Korean baseball in the spotlight: the lack of fans due to virus restrictions.
“And they will sing even if you lose, 15-0,” said Brett Pill, who played for the Kia Tigers from 2014 to 2016 and is now the batting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ AA class Tulsa Drillers.
(Lindblom noted that Pill, who played 111 games in three seasons with the San Francisco Giants, had one of the most catchy songs in the league: “Tigers’ Brett Pill. Woahhh-Woah-WOAHH!” 0 : 39 of this video.)
The K.B.O. typical The game then combines the raucous energy of a university football stadium with the specific song of an English football match.
“They can make a 20,000-seat stadium appear larger than the 50,000-seat stadiums we have in the United States,” said Eric Hacker, who pitched in South Korea from 2013 to 2018.
So far, however, the ballparks have been so quiet that the sound of swearing players and referees making calls could be clearly discerned during preseason broadcasts.
Who are the K.B.O.Yankees?
Dan Kurtz, a stay-at-home father in Tacoma, Wash., Created the website MyKBO.net in 2003 for the small community of English-speaking fans in the league. Today, the website, which retains its charming homemade aesthetic, remains one of the best sources of up-to-date results for teams and players.
Asked about the teams that American fans might want to follow, Kurtz noted that the fandom does not always adhere to complex logic. He joked, for example, that anyone using a Samsung phone could take root for the Samsung Lions.
The Doosan Bears have had the most success recently, making it to the championship series in each of the past five seasons and winning three times. And the Kia Tigers have the most historic success, with 11 championships, leading fans to compare them to the Yankees, even if they have been less than stellar in recent years.
Kurtz said fans of the Mets, on the other hand, could be linked to the LG The Twins, who play the Bears’ second violin in Seoul, have not won a title since 1994 and, to really advance the comparison , have a reputation for not meeting expectations.
Korean baseball therefore clearly has its own decorum.
For example, if a pitcher hits a batter with the ball, he is expected to tilt his cap or make another conciliatory move towards his opponent. And in a country where age hierarchies often dictate interpersonal behavior, apologies to older opponents tend to be even more pronounced.
“If you’re a 24-year-old pitcher and hit Lee Dae-ho, you better take off your hat and bow,” said Kurtz, referring to the 37-year-old hitter from the Lotte Giants. “The benches have cleared because of these things. “
Lindblom said it has taken the opportunity to offer sporting demonstrations to highly reputable opponents like Lee Seung-yuop, K.B.O. leader of career home runs, who retired after the 2017 season.
Get to know the South Korean stars.
Fans in the United States could naturally be drawn to American players in the league – teams can have up to three international players on their rosters – or Korean players who have spent time in the major leagues.
But our experts encouraged fans to find out more about the lesser-known South Korean players.
Pill was most enthusiastic about a 33-year-old chubby pitcher from Doosan named Yoo Hee-kwan, which launches a curve ball that sometimes hovers around 80 km / h.
“He’s that very small left-handed pitcher who probably peaks at 83,” said Pill, referring to his fast ball speed. “But he hit the inside corner every time and then threw a change that just fell off the plate. You saw the ball, but you couldn’t hit it. ”
Lindblom said the best player in the overall K.B.O. ranking, in his opinion, was Yang Eui-ji, the 32-year-old receiver for NC Dinos.
“He’s a really smart player, a great situational hitter and also a guy with power. Said Lindblom. “He’s just a tough guy. He is also one of the best defensive wrestlers. “
Kurtz mentioned three Korean players who seemed most likely to make the leap to America in the years to come: Kim Ha-seong, 24, a gifted shortstop who hit 0.307 last season, with 19 home runs; Na Sung-bum, 30, an athletic fielder with good power and a strong arm, who is trying to recover from a serious leg injury he suffered in 2019; and Yang Hyeon-jong, who posted a 2.29 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 184.2 innings last year and has won two Choi Dong awards in his career.
“You have to have an open mind,” said Kurtz. “You are going to see good players, and you are going to see things you have probably never seen, even in the minor leagues. But that’s why you look. ”