Half a World Away and Right at Home: Sciambi and Perez on Broadcasting the KBO

It’s 1 AM on a Saturday night in mid-May, and in his otherwise quiet New York City apartment, Jon Sciambi is getting ready for work. As his neighbors snooze, Sciambi, a veteran TV and radio announcer for ESPN, goes over box scores and lineups in his home broadcast studio ahead of the upcoming LG Twins-Kiwoom Heroes game in the KBO, Korea’s professional baseball league. With MLB – Sciambi’s regular assignment – on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, his job now is to do play by play for games featuring teams and players that, a few weeks prior, he barely knew (if he knew them at all), doing so from thousands of miles away while stuck at home like so many other Americans. For both him and viewers around the country, the KBO is the only game in town, and one that Sciambi and the rest of his ESPN counterparts are learning more or less on the fly.

“This is our baseball window, is the way I’m looking at it, and we’re trying to sort it out,” Sciambi says. “We’re trying to get as much information as we possibly can and put it out there and get good stories and talk baseball and have some fun, man. Smile and have some fun.”

Ordinarily during this time of year, Sciambi and ESPN would be working their way through the early part of the MLB season, traveling from coast to coast and bringing viewers big games from the biggest teams. But COVID-19 has upended both lives and leagues, leaving sports networks scrambling to fill slots that ordinarily would’ve gone not just to MLB, but also to the other major North American professional leagues, which also find themselves on hiatus. ESPN, which normally airs a handful of MLB games a week and spends countless hours parsing transactions and takes, was no exception, suddenly finding itself without any baseball at all as every league on the planet came to an indefinite halt.

The solution came in the form of the KBO. Thanks to a rigorous program of testing and contact tracing, South Korea was able to contain COVID-19 more quickly and effectively than other countries, allowing its citizenry to resume a semblance of normal life. That included its professional league, which had been forced to stop spring training in mid-March and delay its Opening Day. A month later, though, the KBO announced that it would return at the beginning of May, albeit in stadiums without fans and with social distancing measures, such as no handshakes, high fives, or spitting. Aside from Taiwan’s CPBL, it would be the only professional league in action — and as the highest-caliber baseball available, it became an immediate draw for ESPN.

As the network entered into negotiations with the league for American broadcasting rights, it reached out to its stable of baseball broadcasters, including Sciambi and Eduardo Perez. The timeframe was highly compressed: “I found out it was a potential a week to 10 days before the season started [on May 5],” Sciambi says. Short on time, he, Perez and other members of the ESPN baseball team — including Karl Ravech, Sunday Night Baseball color commentator Jessica Mendoza, and College World Series regular Kyle Peterson — tried to learn as much as they could.

“One of the first things I did was reach out to guys who played over there,” Sciambi says, listing 2019 KBO MVP and current Brewers pitcher Josh Lindblom, four-year KBO veteran and Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly, and Angels pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who spent three seasons in Korea during his playing career. Perez did the same, and also gave himself homework. “I started watching KBO games to get the pace and rhythm and managerial style, and to get to know the players,” he says. “I watched at least 10 at-bats from each player to get a feel for what they look like at the plate. I wasn’t going to go in blind.”

The two also consulted with any KBO expert they could find. Trips to Dan Kurtz’s MyKBO.net, the biggest English-language Korean baseball resource on the internet, became common. Sciambi chatted regularly with Sung Min Kim, a former FanGraphs writer who now works for the Lotte Giants. “You just try to build an idea of what the league is about and what it’s like culturally,” Sciambi says.

Though neither Sciambi nor Perez were terribly familiar with the KBO before drawing their assignments, both knew that it wasn’t going to be like MLB. “I had enough of an understanding that the style would be somewhere between what [Japan’s NPB] is and what MLB is in terms of the offense,” Sciambi says. It was important, Perez says, to make that distinction. “The most unfair thing we can do is compare it to MLB, because it’s a different game, and you have to respect the game that they play,” he says.

Still, beyond learning the league and where, exactly, teams like the LG Twins are located, there are plenty of other logistical difficulties. Given the 13-hour difference between the East Coast and South Korea, games take place and air live anywhere from 1 AM to 5:30 in the morning in the United States, meaning lots of late nights and early wakeups (and mid-day naps). Though both Sciambi and Perez have experience with remote broadcasts, they don’t have a studio to work in: Each is working from home, unable to interact physically with whoever else is in the (virtual) booth. As anyone who’s suffered through a Zoom conference call over the last two months knows, crosstalk and awkward silences are unavoidable in the digital sphere, and that’s doubly so with an unscripted show. Adding to the confusion is that for both men, the broadcast is on a separate screen than the camera each must look into (and the video call that each is on), forcing them to constantly split their attention between the game and each other.

Jon Sciambi’s at-home studio (Photo: Jon Sciambi)

Eduardo Perez’s at-home studio (Photo: Eduardo Perez)

The distance also robs them of the ability to see the entire field, talk with players before games, or do any of the other things that help TV announcers get a better and more accurate feel for the action. Then there’s the matter of the broadcast itself. ESPN has no control over what’s being aired: The camera shots and replays are whatever the producers and directors in Korea want, with no input from anyone in the United States. “I’m seeing in my monitor exactly what you’re seeing at home,” Sciambi says. “It can be hard to tell fair or foul, how hard did he hit it, does this have a chance, that type of thing. When they hit a fly ball, I don’t know where the defense is playing unless the camera shows it to me.”

Weather is also a factor. ESPN’s chosen Opening Day broadcast of the NC Dinos against the Samsung Lions — with Ravech and Perez on the call — was almost changed at the last minute due to a rain delay. The sun eventually came out, though the game didn’t start until close to 2 AM ET, and the potential for rainouts forcing a switch to a different game keeps everyone on their toes. “We’re like [The Weather Channel’s] Jim Cantore in Korea right now,” Perez says.

These are all complications far beyond those that exist in a regular MLB season, to say nothing of having to memorize dozens of unfamiliar names and then relay them to viewers who are equally new to the league. “The information is like drinking out of a firehose,” Sciambi says. “Going into prepping is like there’s this unbelievably messy room and you’re trying to figure out how to organize it.” Mindful of being respectful to a different culture, both Sciambi and Perez have taken pains to perfect their pronunciations. During the first two weeks of games, Sciambi went as far as to record himself saying player names to send to ESPN baseball reporter Joon Lee to make sure they were correct. “He was sending me voice memos every couple of hours,” Lee says.

Ultimately though, they’ve enjoyed the work. “It’s a challenge, but it’s been fun,” Sciambi says. Despite staying up late most nights, Perez is a morning person by virtue of the daily MLB Network radio show he co-hosts from 7 to 10 AM. Before he heads to the studio in the garage of his Miami home (“I can yell and do anything at any time and not wake anyone up,” he says), he showers and makes himself a relatively elaborate breakfast for 5:00 AM. “I’ve made steak and eggs, breakfast tacos,” he says. “Everybody back in the control center [in Bristol, Connecticut] is like, really? That’s what you’re making today?” Sciambi’s schedule is more varied, as he draws games all over the clock, but he’s spruced up his home studio by creating a wall with funny pictures of baseball players and people behind him.

It helps that, even though MLB is sidelined, there’s still an MLB spin that can be added to any game. “We don’t have MLB, so this is going to be our vehicle to talk MLB,” Sciambi says. “I assume the people watching the game are baseball fans, and I know there are some hardcore KBO fans in the States that are watching, but we’re trying to serve a broader audience.” To that end, broadcasts will often include guest spots from ESPN reporters like Jeff Passan, Buster Olney, and Tim Kurkjian to discuss the latest news stateside.

Still, it’s a KBO broadcast, and that means the primary focus is the game on the field. As such, the broadcasts have rotated through guests like Lee, MyKBO.com’s Kurtz, DKTV reporter Daniel Kim, and others who have written about the league and know it inside and out. Similarly, former KBO players like Eric Thames have dropped by to give their perspective; so have local superfans like Sangkyu Jeon, a well-known LG Twins supporter. During broadcasts, Perez will hop on Twitter to see what people are saying about the game, trying to learn as much as possible. “We are like that average fan,” he says. “We’re educating ourselves.”

That includes learning about the style of play in the KBO. With less power both at the plate and on the mound than its American equivalent, the strategy in Korean baseball plays more to an older version of the game. “You have to grind with the tools you have,” Perez says. “You have to be able to move runners over, to bunt at any time. You see a lot more two-seamers and submarine pitchers and deception. You see a lot of lefties, pitchers and hitters…. I don’t see as many shifts because of the ability of the hitter to hit the ball the other way. But I also see more action because the ball is being put in play a lot more.” He’s frequently impressed by the way starting pitchers go deep into games, as opposed to MLB’s more bullpen-heavy orientation.

What grabs the attention, too, is the energy that KBO players bring to each at-bat and pitch. Though both Sciambi and Perez were disappointed in not getting the full Korean fan experience, replete with dancing and songs and synchronized chants, they enjoy the looseness of the players on the field. “The players seem to play with more emotion, and it’s allowed and expected,” Perez says. “They don’t take it as personal over there. It’s a game, and they want to entertain.”

That’s what Sciambi and Perez and their coworkers want to do, too. After nearly three weeks of games, they both feel like they’re hitting their strides and finding a greater appreciation for a league they’d never watched, telling the stories of local superstars like all-time KBO hit king Yong Taik Park 박용택 and NC Dinos second baseman Min-woo Park 박민우 to a newly global audience. “If we didn’t have a two-week quarantine in Korea, I’m like, let’s get on a plane and go to Korea,” Perez says. “I’d do KBO games from there.”

It’s unclear how much longer Sciambi, Perez, and ESPN will have to keep up with KBO. Part of that depends on MLB and its potential return, though an ESPN source says that the network plans on carrying the entire KBO season and playoffs regardless. More likely than not, if MLB does come back, Sciambi and Perez will say annyeong to KBO and go back to their regular jobs. That doesn’t mean they’ll be leaving Korea behind, though. On his last supermarket trip, Perez made sure to pick up some Korean barbecue sauce, and he says that his next culinary endeavor (though probably not for breakfast) will be Korean fried chicken. “You name it,” he says, “I’m all in.”

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3 years ago

Great stuff, Jon. I’m grateful for any live sports, and it’s been fun getting to know a new league and a new set of players.

Compared to others in the social media realm, I have far more sympathy for ESPN’s broadcast of the KBO. I love hearing from MLB players and Jeff Passan (among others) during blowouts most of the time, and the confluence of factors (lack of stadium atmosphere, no control over video feed, so on) means a “conventional” broadcast is sub-optimal. That said, I’d prefer a greater focus on the game action at times. It’s a little frustrating to see one-run games in the late innings get short shrift because Hank Azaria is doing “Brockmire” bits or a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea is talking about how it’s a completely different culture to the U.S.

I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe one game a week gets the “conventional” treatment? Maybe these guest spots can get bumped to earlier in the game, when the spots are marginally lower in leverage?