Korean baseball is giving American fans something to enjoy while the sports world largely remains sidelined during the pandemic. The Korea Baseball Organization started its season earlier this month in empty stadiums with masks, gloves and no high fives allowed.
WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto has been watching some of the games that ESPN is airing.
Bringing KBO to the USA
The KBO is the highest level of baseball in South Korea. Nine of the ten franchises are named after the companies or business conglomerates which own them, while one sold their naming rights. The Kia Tigers are the most successful team, having won 11 out of the 38 championships.
In April, the KBO announced it would start the regular season May 5 in empty stadiums, as the number of coronavirus cases declined. With much of the sports world shut down, ESPN agreed to air six regular-season games per week. They usually air around 6 a.m. ET. Commentary in English comes from Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez.
Lots of fanfare
American sports fans, especially those in Cleveland, have likely heard of Shin-Soo Choo. The former Cleveland Indians outfielder, who's now with the Texas Rangers, is among the most successful players to come out of Korea. Another is Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu.
"You'll see far more Americans going to play in Korea than Koreans coming to America," Pluto said. Each KBO team can have three foreign players.
Pluto says it's fun to watch. "It's closer to the baseball that I watched growing up than what we're seeing now. The guys don't throw as hard. You'll see more side armed pitchers and more breaking balls. They don't put as much premium on striking hitters out. You'll see a lot of guys choking up on the bat and making more contact."
The bat flip
When a player hits a home run, they flip the bat. "It's been a tradition in Korea for a long time, where in America that would be considered disrespectful to the pitcher," Pluto said. "There, it's a celebration."
Pluto says he also likes that the games seem to move faster than in the MLB. "Hitters don't step out of the box out of every pitch. There's bunting and a lot of stolen bases. The caliber looks something like the AA RubberDucks or AAA Columbus."
A party atmosphere
Traditionally, the games are a celebration with fans chanting, singing and dancing. There are mascots and performances by cheerleaders. Since fans currently aren't allowed in the stadiums, they've put cardboard cutouts of people in seats. "The stadiums usually hold between 15,000 and 30,000 (fans), so they're a little smaller than they are here," Pluto said.
"They actually seem to be more enthusiastic about baseball than most of us," Pluto said. "I think it's more of a collective society where people like to get together and do things together, where we're more individualistic. And they're having fun with it, even though they don't have fans."
Pluto says he wishes Major League Baseball had the same approach.
"I'm sure they have their stars and some primadonnas, but you don't get a Blake Snell," Pluto said. Snell is a 27-year-old pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. He recently said he shouldn't be getting paid half of his salary because the season is cut in half.
"I think in Korea, that would actually bring a lot of shame on any player in the middle of a crisis. It's brought some of that here, but you just wouldn't even think to do that there."