Watching South Korean Baseball on TV? Let Us Help

Josh Lindblom, pitcher at Milwaukee Brewers, did not expect much last weekend when he turned on the television for sports. But what he found was a little too much.

"They had two guys playing Tetris against each other," said Lindblom, laughing.

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But now, sports fans hungry for live games can find a lifeline from an unlikely source: South Korean baseball. The Korean Baseball Organization season begins on Tuesday, and ESPN has announced plans to broadcast its games live.

Lindblom, 32, planned to be watching. The right-hander, currently facing the pandemic with his family in Lafayette, Indiana, spent four and a half seasons in South Korean League, winning consecutive Choi Dong-won prizes (given to the league's best pitcher) in 2018-2019 and the league's Most Valuable Player Award last year.

On behalf of baseball fans, looking forward to some live action, then the New York Times asked Lindblom and a group of experts to advise on the best way to taste the South Korean baseball brand.

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"People are clearly looking for something to cheer for," said Lindblom, "something to follow beyond the news."

Baseball on the other side of the world is still baseball – even though spitting on the field has been temporarily banned. But American fans will notice subtle differences and quirks in the South Korean game.

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There is, for example, a ton of variability in talent in K.B.O. formations. A team can field a player who may be a star in Major League Baseball, but also play with someone who could barely get a title. bench and others that would fit better in smaller alloys.

"There are 65 or 70 high schools that play baseball in Korea, so they are based on a much smaller talent pool," said Aaron Tassano, an international scout at Samsung Lions, whose opening game of the season against NC Dinos aired on ESPN on Tuesday.

The K.B.O. it is considered a league centered on offenses, with cozy courts. But the league has taken steps in recent years to divert its hitter's advantage, including "disarming" the ball and expanding the notoriously small attack zone.

And while the Korean game has more firepower and players moving around the fences than the Japanese league, it can still look to fans as "a refreshing old school," said Tassano.

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"There is bunting and theft," he said. “Their game was not resumed due to the launch angles and the speed of rotation at the level you have here. I love these things about the game here, but there is a purity to the game that I like. "

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All the people interviewed for this story screwed up the same thing about the current chances of Korean baseball being highlighted: the lack of fans because of virus-related restrictions.

Korean games provide nine almost constant noise and color: Each club has a team of cheerleaders who guide fans through dynamic singing routines, with songs tailored to everyone who approaches the stage.

"And they'll be singing even if you're losing, 15-0," he said Brett Pill, who played for the Kia Tigers from 2014 to 2016 and is now the starting coach for Tulsa Drillers, the Los Angeles Dodgers AA class team.

(Lindblom noted that Pill, who played 111 games over three seasons with the San Francisco Giants, had one of the league's most compelling songs: "Tigers & # 39; Brett Pill. Woahhh-Woah-WOAHH!" At 0:39 in this video.)

The typical K.B.O. The game then combines the high-pitched energy of a college football stadium with the specific singing of an English football game.

"They can make a 20,000-seat stadium sound bigger than the 50,000-seat stadium we have in the United States," he said. Eric Hacker, which launched in South Korea from 2013 to 2018.

For now, however, the stadiums are so calm that the sound of players cursing and referees making calls can be clearly discerned in pre-season broadcasts.

Dan Kurtz, a father who stays at home in Tacoma, Washington, created the site MyKBO.net in 2003 for the small community of English-speaking fans of the league. Nowadays, the website, which maintains its charming and homely aesthetic, remains one of the best sources of updated results for teams and players.

Asked which teams American fans might want to follow, Kurtz noted that fans do not always adhere to complex logic. He joked, for example, that anyone using a Samsung phone could root for Samsung Lions.

The Doosan Bears have had the most success recently, reaching the championship series in each of the last 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 that Mets fans, on the other hand, can relate to L.G. Gemini, who play the second guitar with the Bears in Seoul, have not won a title since 1994 and, to really compare, have a reputation for falling short of expectations.

Korean baseball, therefore, clearly has its own decorum.

For example, if a pitcher hits a batter with the ball, there is an expectation that he will lower the cap or make some other conciliatory gesture towards the opponent. And in a country where age-based hierarchies often dictate interpersonal behavior, excuses for older opponents tend to be even more pronounced.

"If you're a 24-year-old pitcher and you hit Lee Dae-ho, you better take off your hat and bow," said Kurtz, referring to the 37-year-old Lotte Giants slugger. "The banks were cleaned up because of things like that."

Lindblom said he embraced opportunities to offer demonstrations of sportsmanship to renowned opponents like Lee Seung-yuop, K.B.O. home career leader, who retired after the 2017 season.

Fans in the United States can naturally be attracted to American league players – teams can have up to three international players on their list – or Korean players who have spent time in the major leagues.

But our experts encouraged fans to learn more about lesser-known South Korean players.

Pill was most enthusiastic about a 33-year-old Doosan Bears pitcher named Yoo Hee-kwan, who plays a curved ball that sometimes hovers around 50 miles an hour.

"He is a very small left-handed pitcher, who probably reaches 83," said Pill, referring to his speed on the fast ball. “But he always hit the inside corner and then made an exchange that fell off the plate. You saw the ball well, but failed to hit it. "

Lindblom said that the best overall player of K.B.O., in his opinion, was Yang Eui-ji, the 32-year-old catcher from NC Dinos.

"He's a really smart player, a great situational hitter and he's also a guy who has power." Lindblom said. "He is just a difficult person. He is also one of the best defenders of the defense."

Kurtz mentioned three Korean players who seemed likely to jump to America in the years to come: Kim Ha-seong, 24, a talented shorttop who defeated 0.307 last season with 19 home runs; At Sung-bum, 30, an athletics player with good strength and a strong arm, who is trying to return from a serious leg injury he suffered in 2019; and Yang Hyeon-jong, who compiled 2.29 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 184.2 entries last year and won two Choi Dong-won prizes in his career.

"You need to have an open mind," said Kurtz. "You will see good players and you will see some things you have probably never seen, even in the minor leagues. But that is why you watch."

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