In the absence of Major League Baseball, the more adventurous among us have turned to the only foreign leagues able to move forward with their respective seasons, namely the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which opened on April 12, and the Korea Baseball Organization, whose Opening Day will be Tuesday. While both leagues contain a smattering of familiar names from MLB and the high minors, the language barriers for those leagues can be daunting. To appreciate those circuits’ nuances, their respective histories, and the cultural differences that separate them from MLB, it’s helpful to have a guide, or guides.
For the KBO, perhaps the best among them is Dan Kurtz, a 40-year-old stay-at-home father of three who lives in Tacoma, Washington. Born in Seoul, South Korea, but adopted as an infant and raised in the U.S., Kurtz’s interest in the KBO was kindled when he traveled to his birth country for the first time in 1999, at age 19. Three years later, he started MyKBO.net, an excellent English-language resource that was initially a message board but that now features schedules, standings, stats, and instructions on how to stream games — and even a fantasy league. As the eyes of the world have turned to the KBO, he’s emerged as an outstanding ambassador, tirelessly answering the questions of those looking to find their way to appreciating the league, this scribe included.
Last week, Kurtz agreed to an email interview and offered more insights into the league — far more than could fit into a single post! What follows here, where we discussed Kurtz’s background and how he became a go-to for all things KBO, and in Part 2, where we get into the real nitty-gritty of what to watch for in the 2020 season, is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. For the purposes of clarity and familiarity, I have used the English naming order, placing Korean surnames last instead of first.
Jay Jaffe: Were you a baseball fan before [traveling to Korea] (MLB or foreign leagues) and if so, who did you root for?
Dan Kurtz: Having grown up in Eastern Pennsylvania, I became a Philadelphia Phillies fan and like many kids in the area, I pretended to be Mike Schmidt and hit a game winning home run. Before moving to Lancaster, I lived near Reading and went to a lot of Reading Phillies games. I can remember going to some games with friends and lining up to get autographs from the likes of Pat Combs and Jason Grimsley. So despite having moved from the area and around the world the past few years, I am still a Phillies fan and am also trying to make my kids fans of the team as well. Currently, they show no affinity towards baseball; they just refer to the Phils and my other favorite sports teams as “Daddy’s team.”
JJ: How many games did you see on your 1999 trip, and what teams? Were there any particular players who stood out to you?
DK: My first trip back to South Korea since being adopted was part of an adoptee tour group in 1999; I did not actually attend my first KBO game until the fall of 2000. I did first hear about the KBO during that trip back in 1999, but it wasn’t until I was studying abroad in South Korea that I got my first taste of KBO action and have been hooked ever since. The first game I attended was a Doosan Bears game at Jamsil Stadium. I was invited to the game by a friend who knew I enjoyed sports of all kinds. He had been to a few already and told me that I’d have fun and enjoy the atmosphere. I don’t remember a lot of specifics about that game (thanks soju!), but I do remember a home run by Tyrone Woods and decided that I needed to keep watching and following Woods, the team, and league as best I could.
JJ: Was there bat-flipping in the league even back then?
DK: I honestly can’t remember if I witnessed a bat-flip on my first trip to a KBO game, but as I began following more games, the flair from guys’ at-bats stuck with me because having only watched MLB and minor league baseball, it was all new to me. In recent years, I have gone back and watched some highlights from the early 90s and saw a few bat-flips and flair during those years. I know a few articles in the past have tried to pinpoint the origins of the bat-flips, but there has been no consensus as to where it all began – do we simply blame sports highlight shows on TV for it all, or is it a true bat-release technique?
JJ: Do you see distinct differences between the KBO of 20 years ago and the KBO of today?
DK: Some differences that I have noticed over the last couple of decades range anywhere from aesthetics to strategy. When I began attending games and even following the league, attendance ranged around 4,000-5,000 per game. The league saw a high in 2012 of 13,400 per game; it’s settled down to about 10,000-11,000 fans a game. A simple increase of five or six thousand fans per game has changed the atmosphere, as games are now louder than ever. Unfortunately for the first part of this season, KBO games will be fanless and it will be interesting to see how players respond to the quiet of stadiums and the ability to be heard on TV cameras when simply chatting or talking.
One other thing that’s changed since I began following is that all games are now televised on specific sports channels with pre- and post-game analysis. When I first began watching, there were not a lot shows dedicated strictly to the KBO.
A lot of the teams now have newer stadiums and facilities than in the past. This has helped not only increase fan attendance, but it’s helped with teams’ strategic planning, such as adding analytics to their player development. An example would be that the Samsung Lions opened up their new ballpark in 2016 to rave reviews. They also happened to be the first team to install Trackman at their new stadium. Since then, almost all teams have added Trackman amongst other analytic-driven technologies to their stadiums, front offices, and player development. Data and technology were not being used by the league when I first started watching, but it’s been interesting to see how quickly it has taken off not only amongst teams, but among the fans and TV channels broadcasting it – during a broadcast, it may display RPM on pitches, etc.
JJ: When you were studying at Yonsei University in Seoul, were you able to get much baseball into your life at that time? I know that when I was in college, it was hard to find time to watch or go to games, especially because for awhile, I didn’t even have a TV or get a daily newspaper.
DK: Looking back, I wish I had attended more games during my year at Yonsei University. But being 20-21 years old in one of the world’s largest cities, with anything and everything to do, eat, drink, and explore, I wasn’t able to get out to the ballpark as much as I should have. (I also began dating my now-wife in the spring of 2001, so that took precedent over sports.)
These distractions are actually one of the reasons why I even came up with the idea of MyKBO. My inability to attend games but wanting to watch or keep up with the league coupled with the fact that there was very little English language coverage, helped prompt me to try to find out information despite my basic level Korean language skills. While at Yonsei, I began learning Korean for the first time and that basic language foundation allowed me to find out such simple facts as to who, what, and when games were being played and basic standings and statistics. I would then pass along the info that I had to a few other friends that wanted to follow the league and that’s how MyKBO came about.
JJ: Have you been back to South Korea since then? If so, is baseball a key part of your travel?
DK: Since the first tour with the adoptee travel group in 1999, I have been back to South Korea many times to live, work, and tour. I even attended a few games of the 2002 World Cup – I was at the game when the USA beat Portugal in Suwon. I’ve had a few stints of teaching English at private academies in Seoul and Changwon. In fact, the father of one of my students was a KBO pitcher at the time, and she would get embarrassed when I’d talk about the KBO in class. The students all thought it was a bit strange that I was intrigued by the league. Despite her embarrassment, she did bring me an autographed ball of his as a gift one day, which I still have today.
The last time I lived in Korea was from 2014-2016, and that was due to my wife’s employment. During all the various times that I have been back to Korea, I always make sure that I attend KBO games. The last time I lived in Seoul, I was able to take my oldest son out to a few games and despite him not being interested in the game, I was happy that we were able to attend a KBO game together.
Baseball and sports are usually incorporated into my travels whether on purpose or not. Wherever we travel as a family, if there’s a league of any sort of sport, I try to attend. I enjoy seeing what other sports and fans are like around the nation and world. During our honeymoon in Ireland, I was able to convince my wife to attend an Irish professional soccer game with me. C’mon Shels!
JJ: You started MyKBO in 2002 as a message board. What kind of reception did it receive initially? Where did you find an audience given that the period predates the age of social media?
DK: Back in the early 2000s, web forums and message boards were the place to go to gather information. I started out using basic free forum templates and would be posting threads about the KBO and I’d literally be the only person posting – if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? The KBO did not have an official English language website at the time, so I simply wanted to help others that may be looking for a schedule, stats, or standings. Due to the lack of social media at that time, I would look for people’s questions on Korean travel-based forums about wanting to attend a game, where to get tickets, and when was a game, and try to answer them and also direct them to my message board.
Thankfully over the years the internet and technology has advanced so that I now use Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, along with my basic MyKBO.net site, to help other fans learn more about the KBO. Without the help of one of my good friends, the stats and many other things within the site would not work correctly nor look like they do now.
JJ: I can imagine at that point it was hard to see games because the streaming services hadn’t come along yet. How were you able to follow the league? At what point did it become more accessible to you, and how?
DK: After only taking formal Korean language classes for a year, I needed a way to continue practicing my language skills, so I would look up KBO information on the KBO’s site and try and read articles from the various Korean language sports newspapers. Also, in Korea’s few English newspapers there would be occasional KBO coverage, which I appreciated. Eventually in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Naver would show video highlights. Eventually they began showing live games and I would try to stay up at night and watch them. These days, due to the time difference and the fact I have to wake up and take care of three kids, I’m unable to watch as many games live. I do know that whenever I went to Korea, I’d always look forward to turning on the local sports cable channel to watch live KBO action.
JJ: How much of your baseball diet is KBO now, versus other leagues (MLB and/or foreign)? Do you have a favorite KBO team, and if so, how did that come about?
DK: These days due to taking care of three kids and everything else that happens when you have a family, sports is now a luxury for me to enjoy when there’s down time. I try to follow the KBO as closely as I can, despite now living back in the USA. For a few years, I tried my hand at breaking a few foreign player signings and news. But as we had more kids, it became too much for me to keep up with (much respect to the reporters that do it for a living).
I am now merely a fan that enjoys the league from the fan perspective, with no direct ties or affiliations with a league, team, or players. I try to post/tweet/update the KBO news I find interesting whenever I have time. I try to post the things that I personally find interesting about the KBO and Korean baseball. As I stated above, my first KBO game experience was a Doosan Bears game, so I have stuck with that team since. I try to post all the good, bad, and fun things about all the teams and generally just want more fans to learn more about the KBO.
JJ: What’s the league’s best rivalry? How heated do things get?
DK: As a Doosan Bears fan (yes, this part may be a bit biased), I say there’s no better rivalry than when Doosan plays the LG Twins. Both teams share the same stadium and the games are very well attended and very loud. While Doosan has had more success in recent years, tickets to this rivalry are always hard to get, no matter the teams’ place in the standings.
JJ: What’s your understanding of the current possibility regarding broadcasting KBO games in the US?
DK: As of today, there has been no official announcement. If and when the rumored ESPN deal becomes official, as a KBO fan, I may have to pinch myself. While I have loved that Naver has streamed live KBO games worldwide for quite a few years (I’m hearing Naver will be geo-blocked to those with US IP addresses once the ESPN deal becomes official), I am excited to see how the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports will present a league that I’m sure their announcers, production crew, and even statisticians aren’t very familiar with (perhaps I’m wrong and they are all KBO fans….which would be awesome!).
During this time of uncertainty, sports are a luxury and I hope that ESPN can present the KBO in a way that fans of all sports will become interested in and wanting to learn more about the league. MyKBO’s goal for the past 20 years has been to help others learn more about the league and baseball within Korea. I hope that’s ESPN’s goal as well. If there’s anything I learned over these past two decades of following the KBO, it’s that you never have any idea what will happen next. I can’t wait to be surprised with what’s next for the league.
[Update: Just a couple of hours after this article was published, news of an ESPN-KBO deal broke. ESPN will air one game a day using its own in-house talent as hosts via remote setups. The games will air live, which won’t be very convenient for US audiences, but DVRs can help. See here for more details.]
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.