On Watching KBO Games, in Korean

The start of the KBO season this week has been a joyous occasion for me. The opening night broadcast reminded me of what I’d lost: the crack of the bat, the delightful feeling of not knowing what will happen next, and the thrill of a sudden defensive gem in an otherwise stately-paced game.

But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I’ve been vocal about my desire to see Dixon Machado play; shortstop defense is my favorite flavor of baseball, and he’s a wizard with the glove. The Lotte Giants weren’t scheduled for any English language games all week. Something had to give.

Luckily, if you’re willing to hunt around a bit, the English programming schedule is no barrier. The KBO broadcasts all of their games in Korean on Twitch, and so I set out to watch the Giants take on the KT Wiz and enjoy a game that was both very like what I know and utterly foreign.

My initial impression, after fast-forwarding through the pregame show, was one of emptiness:

But of course, that’s simply baseball’s new reality. I’d encountered it already in the opening broadcast, and in the time of COVID-19, it isn’t strange to see empty spaces designed to seat thousands. It was comforting, almost, a reminder that I wasn’t watching to see what was different. It’s all different. Life’s all different. I was watching to see what was the same, to see the central thread of baseball with different trappings.

The announcers shared my fascination with Machado — he starred in the first game of the season, with a home run to accompany his typical stellar defense. He looked utterly at home in the dugout, and the camera couldn’t get enough of him:

Something stuck out to me immediately, even before the game started: the language baseball announcers speak hardly matters. The cadence of the game is what I’m actually hearing; a high note to denote excitement, a pause after a player’s name that denoted that I should pay attention. The playing of the national anthem even felt the same — with some COVID-related changes, of course:

The Korean language broadcast didn’t pipe in crowd noise. It was at first immersion-breaking; shouldn’t I be hearing a continual low drone of conversations and vendors and the sound of 35,000 feet tapping on the ground? But the dugout chatter brought back the feel of a high school or little league game, and the crack of the bat when Giants leadoff hitter Min Byung-hun cracked a double off the left field wall was exactly what I’ve been craving these last few months.

The sacrifice fly that put the Giants ahead 1-0 made me realize how little I normally listen to announcers during a baseball game. I tuned my brain in to listen to whether the announcers thought it was a good send — it looked good to me, but I have absolutely no clue about the various outfield arms on the Wiz — and hey, what do you know, it was still a broadcast in Korean. I’d been listening to the feel, not the words, which I suppose is how I normally experience baseball.

When Wiz starter William Cuevas settled down in the second, I was surprised by how momentous a strikeout felt. He got first baseman Jung Hoon with a painted changeup, and I noticed I’d internalized the KBO’s high-contact style. Jung’s disappointed shake of the head, and the announcers’ awed tones, matched my internal evaluation: nice cambio. When he got the last batter of the inning looking to escape a jam (Machado, that little scamp, got hit by a pitch and then stole second), the announcers yelped in appreciation, and I felt my pulse rise. Baseball!

When the baseball wasn’t on, it was easy to tell that I was watching something unfamiliar to me. KBO broadcasts favor upbeat, dance-y music for interstitial breaks, rather than the vaguely dramatic, orchestral dross American broadcasts seem to prefer. The ads were different too, of course; hardly a surprise. But I don’t watch baseball for the ads, and I found the music suited my mood quite well. Here I was, celebrating watching live baseball again, and the music was celebrating right alongside me.

Mel Rojas Jr. absolutely rakes. When he lanced a double into the gap, I also learned that he wears a sweet jersey:

A runner on second with one out, I learned, feels far more threatening in a high-contact game. Hwang Jae-gyun, the next batter, struck out 13.8% of the time last year; he seemed likely to put the ball in play, which meant more chances for hijinks on the basepaths. Rojas had run out of his helmet, and nearly some of his body armor, on his double. He looked ready for some hijinks.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Hwang flied out to right, and second baseman Park Kyung-Soo swung under a two strike heater, to the rhythm of a strident drum beat. There may not have been a crowd, but there were cheer squads of a sort for the home Wiz, and they added a nice touch of drama to the proceedings. And some things never seem to change: The Offspring’s “The Kids Aren’t Alright” backed a bank commercial, the kind of sound/subject mismatch that would feel right at home in a random commercial back at home.

Cuevas broke out a smooth quick-pitch in the third to steal a strike, which answered a question I’ve recently wondered about: how do unwritten rules translate across countries? Well enough, it seems; Min looked aggrieved, and you don’t need to speak Korean to understand the unhappy tone that emerged from the Giants dugout. When Min worked his way back to a full count and rapped a single to left, one voice cheered obnoxiously loudly from the dugout: the international language of “you got what you deserved.”

When the inning spiraled — a parade of groundball singles with a three-run bomb from Jung thrown in for good measure — I noted another bit of baseball’s universal language. Cuevas looked shaken — he was stepping off, missing his spots, and generally getting into his own head. His catcher body languaged him back into the game: a closed-glove point and quick nod to say “good pitch” after the umpire didn’t give him a call, a pat of the ground to signify location; I have no clue whether Cuevas knows Korean, but baseball doesn’t require speaking if you know what to look for.

With the game now a 6-0 runaway, my mind wandered to the small rituals that seem to arise spontaneously in all hitters. Checking and re-checking batting gloves, tucking a gold necklace back into a jersey that’s so loosely buttoned it’s only a matter of time before the chain pops out again, an imperceptible adjustment of the batting helmet; I kept forgetting that I was watching a game played half a world away.

As Giants starter Seo Jun-won danced his way through the Wiz lineup — six innings pitched, two strikeouts, and a lone unearned run — the other-ness of the game began to stand out more. A part of my brain knows exactly what to do when games get out of hand — watch the people, tune out and enjoy the buzz of a baseball game, and hope to hear an interesting anecdote from an announcer. None of these were possible, of course: there was no crowd and no buzz, and I don’t speak the same language as the announcers.

But that actually drew me back into the game, rather than taking me away from it. When you can’t zone out, all that’s left is to tune in, back to the baseball on the field. So I watched the Wiz struggle to time Seo’s low-three-quarters delivery, and delighted in dugout shots of Dan Straily talking pitching with a teammate via a series of intricate hand movements.

I watched third baseman Han Dong-hee make a smooth pickup of a hard grounder, then ham it up a little for his teammates as the ball went around the horn. Seo made a blind stab at a line drive in the fifth inning and caught it cleanly; his sheepish but proud face afterward looked as familiar to me as anything that’s happened in these last few bizarre months.

Most of the statistics shown during the game left me guessing what was what. A number with a 4 and then a decimal place? ERA. Three digits after a decimal? Batting average, perhaps, or slugging if it was high. A whole number? Your guess is as good as mine. But I did learn that WHIP doesn’t seem to have a direct Korean translation; it’s simply written the same:

That’s reliever Son Dong-hyun, by the way. He’s only 19, and he wasn’t quite ready for prime time last year; he walked more batters than he struck out in 34 games. But he looked strong this game; his fastball hit the upper 80s and had significant vertical ride, something easy to pick up given a wonderful direction-of-spin graphic that I hope stateside broadcasts pick up sooner rather than later.

Son exemplifies something that felt almost-imperceptibly off as I watched the game. The talent level is less smooth in the KBO than it is in the major leagues. Son’s equivalent in affiliated ball wouldn’t be throwing on the biggest stage and scuffling; he’d be embarrassing hitters his age in some far-flung minor league outpost. That’s not to say he doesn’t belong in the KBO — he looked perfectly fine this game — but it’s just not something you’d see in the states, a 19-year-old middle reliever facing the country’s highest level of competition.

Oh yeah — there was one outright weird thing:

As esteemed editor Meg Rowley noted of the artificial fans in the CPBL, the proportions here seem just a little off. Small torsos, big heads; I’m not sure which it is, but it gives the faux crowd an uncanny valley vibe.

The fake crowd was directly in front of the hype squad; they had front row seats for the drum banging and chanting that gave the stadium some buzz when the Wiz were at the plate. I can sympathize with the desire to perform for at least some semblance of an audience — but fake fans are a sure way to make the game feel a little strange, an even surer way than no fans at all.

Back on the field, the cardboard faithful didn’t have much to cheer for. Even the run the Wiz mustered off of Seo was hardly exciting; a groundball single, a ball that second baseman An Chi-hong booted into the outfield, and a run-scoring groundout. I was ready to fast-forward and look for Machado defensive highlights when Giants slugger Dae-Ho Lee crushed a pitch into the left field power alley in the top of the seventh with two men on.

But the ball held up for a hard luck out, and the Wiz struck back for two runs in the bottom of the inning — walk (with a pinch runner in for the catcher!), double, single, sac fly. I realized that I didn’t want to skip through the game — I just wanted the game to get closer, to give me another sweet hit of uncertainty-fueled dopamine when a big play happened.

That dramatic moment never came. Baseball can be cruel that way. The closest thing to drama in the last two innings was a play at the plate that made the score 9-4 in the ninth. That score held; Giants in a rout. The last play of the game was a Machado putout — but it was routine, not the dazzling display I’d hoped for. If I wanted to get more baseball excitement, I’d have to tune into another game.

And I will tune into another game. This one may not have had the infield defense I was craving, but it sated my thirst for baseball every bit as much as the opening night English broadcast had. Sure, a lot of things are a little different. But I found that all I cared about were the parts that are the same.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

That fake crowd is amazing haha. They must have all shown up early to cop the free jersey merch at the gate.