Josh Lindblom, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, was not expecting a lot last weekend when he turned on his television looking for sports. But what he found was a bit much.
“They had two guys on there playing Tetris against each other,” Lindblom said, laughing.
But now, American sports fans starved for live games may find a measure of salvation from an unlikely source: South Korean baseball. The Korea Baseball Organization season begins Tuesday, and ESPN has announced plans for live broadcasts of its games.
Lindblom, 32, planned to be watching. The right-hander, currently riding out the pandemic with his family in Lafayette, Ind., pitched four and a half seasons in the South Korean league, winning back-to-back Choi Dong-won awards (given to the league’s best pitcher) in 2018 and 2019 and the league’s Most Valuable Player Award last year.
On behalf of baseball aficionados eager for some live action, then, 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 cheer for,” Lindblom said, “something to follow other than the news.”
The league has a wide-ranging talent pool.
Baseball on the other side of the world is still baseball — even if spitting on the field 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. lineups. A team might field a player who could be a star in Major League Baseball but also play someone who would just barely make an M.L.B. bench and others who would fit best in the minor leagues.
“There’s 65 or 70 high schools that play baseball in Korea, so they’re drawing from a much smaller talent pool,” said Aaron Tassano, an international scout for the Samsung Lions, whose season-opening game against the NC Dinos aired on ESPN on Tuesday.
The K.B.O. is regarded as an offense-centric league, with cozy ballparks. But the league has taken steps in recent years to shift the advantage away from its hitters, including “de-juicing” the ball and expanding the notoriously small strike zone.
And while the Korean game has more firepower and players swinging for the fences than the Japanese league, it might still come across to fans as “refreshingly old school,” Tassano said.
“There’s bunting and stealing,” he said. “Their game has not been taken over by launch angles and spin rate to the degree it has here. I love those things about the game here, but there’s a purity to the game there that I enjoy.”
No fans are allowed, draining color.
Every person interviewed for this story rued the same thing about Korean baseball’s current chance in the spotlight: the lack of fans because of restrictions related to the virus.
Korean games provide nine innings of near constant noise and color: Each club has a cheerleading team that guides fans through buoyant singing routines, with bespoke songs for every batter who steps up to the plate.
“And they’ll be singing even if you’re losing, 15-0,” said Brett Pill, who played for the Kia Tigers from 2014 to 2016 and is now the hitting coach for the Tulsa Drillers, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Class AA team.
(Lindblom noted that Pill, who played 111 games over three seasons with the San Francisco Giants, had one of the catchiest songs in the league: “Tigers’ Brett Pill. Woahhh-Woah-WOAHH!” At 0:39 of this video.)
The typical K.B.O. game, then, combines the raucous energy of a college football stadium with the subject-specific singing of an English soccer match.
“They can make a 20,000-seat stadium sound bigger than the 50,000-seat stadiums we have in the States,” said Eric Hacker, who pitched in South Korea from 2013 to 2018.
For now, though, the ballparks have been so quiet that the sound of players swearing and umpires making calls could be clearly discerned on preseason broadcasts.
Who are the Yankees of the K.B.O.?
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 of the league. These days, the website, which maintains its charmingly homemade aesthetic, remains one of the best sources of up-to-date results for teams and players.
Asked which teams American fans might want to follow, Kurtz noted that fandom does not always adhere to some complex logic. He joked, for instance, that anyone who used a Samsung phone could 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 it three times. And the Kia Tigers have the most historical 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 Mets fans, on the other hand, might relate to the L.G. Twins, who play second fiddle to the Bears in Seoul, have not won a title since 1994 and, to really drive home the comparison, have a reputation for falling short of expectations.
Korean baseball, then, clearly has its own decorum.
For instance, if a pitcher hits a batter with the ball, there is an expectation that he will tip his cap or make some other conciliatory gesture toward his opponent. And in a country where age-based hierarchies often dictate interpersonal behavior, apologies toward 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,” Kurtz said, referring to the 37-year-old slugger for the Lotte Giants. “Benches have cleared because of things that.”
Lindblom said he embraced opportunities to offer displays of sportsmanship to highly regarded opponents like Lee Seung-yuop, the K.B.O. career home runs leader, who retired after the 2017 season.
Get to know South Korean stars.
Fans in the United States might naturally be drawn to the American players in the league — teams can have up to three international players on their rosters — or Korean players who 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 pudgy 33-year-old pitcher for the Doosan Bears named Yoo Hee-kwan, who throws a curveball that sometimes hovers around 50 miles per hour.
“He’s this very small, little left-handed pitcher, who probably tops out at 83,” Pill said, referring to his fastball velocity. “But he would hit the inside corner every time and then throw a changeup that just fell off the plate. You saw the ball well, but you couldn’t hit it.”
Lindblom said the best overall player in the K.B.O., in his opinion, was Yang Eui-ji, the 32-year-old catcher for the NC Dinos.
“He’s a really smart player, a great situational hitter and is also a guy who’s got some power.” Lindblom said. “He’s just a tough out. He’s one of the better defensive catchers, also.”
Kurtz mentioned three Korean players who seemed most likely to make the jump to America in the coming years: Kim Ha-seong, 24, a gifted shortstop who batted .307 last season, with 19 home runs; Na Sung-bum, 30, an athletic outfielder with good power and a strong arm, who is trying to come back from a serious leg injury he suffered in 2019; and Yang Hyeon-jong, who compiled a 2.29 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 184.2 innings last year and has won two Choi Dong-won awards in his career.
“You’ve got to have an open mind,” Kurtz said “You’re going to see some good players, and you’re going to see some stuff you’ve probably never seen, even in the minor leagues. But that’s why you watch.”