American interest in Korean baseball shows power of sports

photo: Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star

By Jeff Uveino

As the waning hours of Monday night crept into the early hours of Tuesday morning on the east coast, many American sports fans found their attention focused half way around the world.

It wasn’t until earlier that day that sports television giant ESPN announced that it would be broadcasting games from the Korea Baseball Organization, or the KBO.

Suddenly, thousands of baseball enthusiasts who had been deprived of the sport due to the postponement of Major League Baseball’s season became interested in South Korea’s premier baseball league. And, every major sports media outlet scrambled to put out a story that would help readers become familiar with the league.

Thursday marks 55 days without a ‘major four’ professional sporting event being played in the United States, and 190 days since MLB played the last game of its 2019 season.

Under no other circumstances would American sports fans be inclined to follow the KBO. After all, the product put out by MLB is widely regarded as the highest level of baseball in the world, and most weeknight Korean games start at 5:30 a.m. eastern time— perhaps the worst possible time for most in the US.

However, in a time when live sports are nearly impossible to come by, Korean baseball played in the middle of the night with no fans in attendance is oddly attractive for disciples of the sport, myself included.

You’d be hard pressed to find American baseball fans who followed the KBO before this week. Now, names such as the Samsung Lions, Kia Tigers and Lotte Giants suddenly carry weight.

American interest in Korean baseball not only shows the desire that we have for sports to return, but also the power of sport, which on several hours’ notice, caused thousands to stay glued to their television screens late through the night to catch this phenomenon.

Naturally, if one is going to follow a sports league, they will pick a favorite team. After some brief research, I was drawn to the Changwon-based NC Dinos. Despite lacking a championship in nine KBO seasons, the Dinos feature several bona-fide stars.

Catcher Eui Ji Yang was the league’s batting champion in 2019, hitting .354 with 20 home runs and 68 runs batted in. Outfielder Min Woo Park wasn’t far behind, batting .344 with six homers, 45 runs driven in and 18 stolen bases.

Outfielder Aaron Altherr, who played in over 350 MLB games from 2014-19, signed with the Dinos this past offseason, as did Drew Rucinski, a former Miami Marlin.

Now-Washington National Eric Thames became a breakout star in KBO with the Dinos, winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2015 after posting a .381 batting average with 47 HR and 140 RBI.

The Dinos led the KBO in home runs in 2019, and their games are sure to feature an abundance of the league’s signature ‘bat flips’ that are not typically seen in the North American game.

The Dinos began KBO action on ESPN by beating the Lions, 4-0, on Tuesday’s Opening Day. The game was the first of six that will have aired live on the family of ESPN networks throughout the week.

While late-night KBO may not be the ideal fix to the baseball cravings of US fans, it will have to do for now as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

And, I will say, as I struggled to stay awake on Monday night to watch a baseball game played over 6000 miles from my home in upstate New York, I found the crack of the bat and the pop of the glove to sound comfortably familiar.

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