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Baseball is back on TV: What to know about Korea Baseball Organization

There's a new option for those hungry for live sports but not inclined to watch horses or cars race on the track. Baseball is back, just not here. The Korea Baseball Organization League opened play Tuesday, and ESPN is set to televise six games per week this season.

The catch for fans in America is the time difference. They’ll have to stay up late (or get up early) for games that start from between 1 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. ET Tuesday through Saturday, though there are afternoon rebroadcasts on the schedule, too. That’s not ideal, but time seems to have become warped for those of us staying at home, so maybe ESPN will find a significant audience for live sports after midnight.

(I lived in South Korea for a year during middle school, but I didn’t attend any KBO games. I did frequently hear “Carl Lewis” from people on the streets because the Summer Olympics were coming to Seoul, and I had a haircut like the American track star.)

Baseball is baseball, but every league has its own flavor. For expert insight on Korean baseball, I reached out to Dan Kurtz, who advocates for the KBO at his website MyKBO.net. Here are Kurtz's (lightly edited) answers to my questions.

Q. At MyKBO.net, you write: “The site is run as a hobby by its founder for free.” What is it about the KBO that compels you devote time to your site? 

A. Having been adopted from South Korea at four months old, I did not get my first exposure of the KBO until I studied abroad in Korea for a year in 2000. Ever since I attended my first game at Seoul's Jamsil Stadium, I was hooked. Since there was a lack of English-language resources at the time, I tried to use my basic Korean language skills to help others learn more about the KBO. I continue to follow the league because I find it a high level of baseball that is both unpredictable and entertaining. It also allows me to continue learning the Korean language and keeps me connected with the country where I was born.

Q. The KBO has gained attention for dramatic bat flips by hitters after home runs. Those are forbidden by MLB’s unwritten rules, with bean balls as the penalty. Are there other noticeable stylistic differences between MLB and KBO? 

A. While the game may be played the same way as it is in MLB, the KBO has its own baseball culture and its own set of unwritten rules. Flipping your bat on a home run (or even a long fly ball) won't get you beaned the next time up. But the benches will empty if you are a younger pitcher who unintentionally hits a veteran batter with a pitch and don't immediately take off your hat and bow to show remorse.

Q. Are there any major differences in game play in the KBO as compared to American baseball? 

A. The KBO differs from the MLB in that regular-season games end after 12 innings. While the KBO has been known to be a high-scoring league in the past, scores and home runs dropped drastically last year thanks to the "dejuiced" ball. It's become a more pitcher-friendly league, and batters have had to adjust not being able to swing for the fences all the time.

Q. The KBO season begins with no spectators in the stands. Do you think a quieter atmosphere will affect the players? 

A. The first thing new fans to KBO notice when attending or even watching a game on TV is the loud and raucous environment that the fans create. By not having fans in the stands to begin the league, I would imagine that it will take some adjusting for players, managers and coaches. All sorts of chatter, profanity, and strategy can be picked up by anyone on the field and on TV.

Q. The Seoul-based Doosan Bears have won three of the last five Korean Series championships, including the 2019 championship (their American-born pitcher Josh Lindblom, the 2019 league MVP, signed with the Brewers in December). Some people don’t like rooting for the favorite. Are there any fun underdogs to pull for in KBO? 

A. One of the teams that fans may like to root for is the Kiwoom Heroes. They are the only KBO team not owned by a large company. They are privately owned and sell their naming rights. Kiwoom Securities bought those rights (in 2018). Due to not having a large company with large bank accounts, the Heroes are a frugal team that knows how to maximize their spending on players that perform at a high level. They appeared in the Korean Series last season and are expected to do well again this season.

Q. Some Korean players have made a successful transition KBO to MLB in recent years, including Blue Jays pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu (formerly with the Dodgers). Are there any KBO players to watch this season who we may see in MLB one day? 

A. A few players that I would list as possible future major leaguers are pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong of Kia Tigers, outfielder Na Sung-bum of NC Dinos and infielder Kim Ha-seong of Kiwoom. A few years down the road, I'd make sure to check out outfielders Kang Baek-ho of KT Wiz and Lee Jung-hoo of Kiwoom.

Q. Braves fans know Matt Williams, the former MLB star who managed the NL East-rival Nationals from 2014-15. Williams will make his KBO managerial debut this year with the Kia Tigers. What are some challenges Williams will face as a foreign manager for a popular KBO franchise? 

A. The first and most obvious challenge will be having to communicate via translators and interpreters with almost everyone on the team and on the field. There have been other foreign managers in the past and, as a fan, it was always humorous to watch them argue with the ump. Not only did the manager come out on the field, he brought his translator, and it was then a three-party argument. Another challenge he will face is trying to get Kia back into playoff contention. Kia is the most storied franchise in KBO history, with 11 championships to their name, so fans have high expectations.

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