Korean Baseball: The Only Game in Town

Eat your hearts out, Yankee fans

By: Todd Crowell

The Twins won the baseball season opener on May 5, powered by the pitching of starter Casey Kelly. No, Not those Twins – the Minnesota Twins. The winning team was the LG (Lucky Goldstar) Twins of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in the league’s first game since the coronavirus outbreak.

“We finally got to play a game that mattered,” said Don Straily, another American playing in the KBO, fresh from his team, the Lotte Giants’ win over rival KT Wiz. Pro baseball may not be played in the US or Japan, but it is back in South Korea.

Straily, Kelly and other American colleagues in the league have the distinction of being the only American players to suit up for real so far this year. One can be sure that executives and players in the MLB and Japan’s professional leagues are watching the Korean experiment closely to determine whether to reopen baseball themselves.

It is fair to say that relatively few fans outside Korea even knew that South Korea had a professional baseball league. In fact, Korea supports 10 teams playing in a single league, leading to end-of-season playoffs and a championship.

They go by such names as the Doosan Bears, the Kia Tigers, the Samsung Lions, the Lotte Giants, among others. As the names imply, Korea mirrors the Japanese practice of large corporations owning clubs for publicity purposes.

Otherwise, the Koreans play according to MLB rules with one important exception. Games are limited to 12 innings even if it means ending in a tie. The rule is meant to limit the wear and tear on pitchers and position players. It is something the MLB and Japan might want to entertain.

Actually, Americans have had a chance to watch Korean players do their thing, as they have been playing on American League teams since 1994 (the same year the first Japanese broke into the MLB. Currently, three Korean players have contracts to play in America when and if games resume there this year.

Among those waiting for play to resume is Korea’s biggest overseas star Hyun-jin Ryu, who played with the Los Angeles Dodgers and is waiting to play for the Toronto Blue Jays this year. Hyun was the only Korean pitcher to start a World Series game. He earns a reported $36 million.

As they do in Japan, American and other foreigners play on South Korean teams. Three pitchers played in the opening day games. The highest-paid foreigner in the lineup is Dustin Nippert, who reportedly earns about $2 million.

Although there were no fans in the stadium, the games were broadcast at home, and the American sports network, ESPN has agreed to broadcast Korean games in the US, although one would have to get up very early to watch them because of the time differences between Korea and the US. For now, Korean baseball is just about the only game in town since American baseball is currently dark.

The possibility of playing a full season seemed like a dream in March, when South Korea was reporting 500 new virus infections a day. But that figure has fallen to single digits due to Seoul’s successful strategy of aggressive testing and contact tracing.

Officials are starting to relax social-distancing guidelines in Korea and preparing to reopen schools beginning later this month. Professional soccer began last week too. Fans will be barred from the games until the KBO determines that the risk of infections has been held to a minimum.

Players, coaches and umpires will undergo fever screening before entering the park, and umpires and baseline coaches will wear masks. If any member of the team tests positive, the league will shut down for at least three weeks. When Kim Hyun-soo hit the season’s first home run on opening day there were no high fives, handshakes or hugs to greet him when he got to home plate.

Some teams are deploying fake fans in the form of cardboard cutouts and plastic mannequins in amidst the empty seats, so the park doesn’t look too empty. The restrictions have sucked some of the life from the game for fans and players. The restrictions make the games seem more like everyday practice than real contests. But it’s baseball nonetheless. After all, for 40 years, the following poem, titled “The Crack of the Bat,” ran at the start of the season annually in the now-defunct International Tribune, written by the late IHT sports editor Dick Roraback, in Paris:

Away on this side of the ocean

When the chestnuts are hinting of green

And the first of the café commandos

Are moving outside for a fine

And the sound of spring beats a bolero

As Paree sheds her coat and her hat

The sound that is missed more than any

Is the sound of the crack of a bat.

There's an animal kind of a feeling

There's a stirring down at Vincennes Zoo

And the kid down the hall's getting restless

Taking stairs like a young kangaroo

Now the dandy is walking his poodle

And the concierge sunning her cat

But the heart's with the Cubs and the Tigers

And the sound of the crack of a bat.

In the park on the corner run schoolboys

With a couple of cartons for props

Kicking goals á la Fontaine or Kopa

While a little guy chickies for cops

"Goal for us," "No it's not," "You're a liar,"

Then the classical shrieks of a spat

But it's not like a rhubarb at home plate

Or the sound of the crack of a bat.

Here the stadia thrill to the scrumdowns

And the soccer fans flock to the games

And the chic punt the nags out at Longchamp

Where the women are dames and not dames

But it's different at Forbes and at Griffith

The homes of the Buc and the Nat

Where the hotdog and peanut share laurels

With the sound of the crack of a bat.

No, a Yank can't describe to a Frenchman

The rasp of an umpire's call

The continuing charms of statistics

Changing hist'ry with each strike and ball

Nor the self-conscious jog of the slugger

Rounding third with the tip of his hat

Nor the half-smothered grace of a hook slide

Nor the sound of the crack of a bat.

Now, the golfer is buffing his niblick

And the tennis buff's tightening his strings

And the fisherman's flexing his flyrod

Like a thousand and one other springs

Oh, the sports on both sides of the ocean

Have a great deal in common, at that

But the thing that's not here

At this time of the year

Is the sound of the crack of a bat.