The Wait Is Over in the KBO

Even the first home run of the NC Dinos’ season turned out to be an exercise in waiting.

It had been more than five weeks since the Korean Baseball Organization’s regular season was originally scheduled to begin, and nearly eight weeks since sports across North America came to a near-uniform halt in response to the accelerating spread of COVID-19. Then, just as ESPN was preparing to broadcast the KBO season-opener between the Dinos and the Samsung Lions, rain intervened, delaying the game’s start by about 30 minutes.

Finally, just before 2:30 AM on the east coast of the United States, viewing audiences got their first spark — a towering fly ball down the right field line in the top of the fourth inning off the bat of Na Sung-Bum, disappearing somewhere over the foul pole. But ESPN commentators Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez, calling the game on a remote feed from their own homes, struggled to find the ball, warily calling a home run only as Na began to circle the bases. A replay review ensued and lasted for several minutes, with a tricky camera angle seeming to show the ball flying directly over the pole.

After several moments, the homer was confirmed. It was the first run scored in a nationally televised regular season baseball game this year, and it set the Dinos on a path to their 4-0 victory over the Lions.

It was the first thing to go wrong for Lions starter Baek Jyun-Hyun, who didn’t make many mistakes but was harshly punished when he did. At 32 years old, the southpaw Baek is already a 14-year veteran of the KBO, though his experience getting extensive work as a starter didn’t begin until 2017. He finished last season with a 4.24 ERA and 4.91 FIP, striking out 82 batters and walking 56 in 157 innings. His velocity never peaked above the mid-80s on Tuesday, but he was still able to keep hitters guessing early in the game, allowing just one baserunner in the first three innings while fanning four.

Beginning with the home run by Na, however, the Dinos became increasingly tougher for Baek to fool. Yang Eui-Ji — one of the KBO’s best players in 2019, with a 1.012 OPS, 20 homers, and more walks than strikeouts — followed the homer with a double, and scored three batters later on another double by Mo Chang-Min. Two innings later, Baek was tapped for two more runs, this time on back-to-back impressive dingers from Park Suk-Min and Mo Chang-Min.

Baek’s counterpart, Dinos right-hander Drew Rucinski, fared a bit better. Rucinski, 31, played parts of four seasons in the major leagues, splitting time between the Angels, Twins, and Marlins. A former undrafted free agent signing by the Indians before being released and spending some time in the Frontier League, he once made Kiley McDaniel’s “Others of Note” section during his time as an Angels prospect, with McDaniel describing him as throwing “92-94 with a splitter that’s above average at times.”

That velocity was still there on Tuesday, as Rucinski was able to overpower hitters with the heater while mixing in effective secondary offerings. Unfortunately for him, he often struggled to locate his pitches, showing some visible frustration on the mound in the process. He walked four and allowed three hits in six innings, but managed to power through without allowing any runs to score, also striking out six.

Both teams placed the final three innings of the game in the hands of their bullpens, which each turned in shutout performances. The Lions managed just three hits, though Kim Sang-Su still managed to stand out by reaching base in all four plate appearances via a hit and three walks. for the Dinos, Na finished 2-for-3 with a walk, and Ma went 3-for-4.

The game’s over now. It’s 4:21 AM on the east coast, and Lee Sung-Gyu just flew out to right field for the third out of the ninth. Karl Ravech just signed off, telling Eduardo Perez, “I won’t forget these last three hours for the rest of my life.”

I won’t either. I can’t say I’ve ever before stayed up until this hour to watch a KBO game, but tonight I did wondering if it would make things feel normal again. That’s what the return of sports is meant to do for us, supposedly. Whenever the idea of sports coming back has been discussed, part of that conversation has centered around the need for a distraction, and a return to normalcy. The sight of a ball being tossed around is supposed to instill in us a feeling that life is proceeding as usual, that it was once again okay to care about frivolous things such as box scores and bat flips.

But nothing about watching Tuesday’s game between the NC Dinos and the Samsung Lions felt normal. The empty seats were weird. The broadcast was often awkward and clunky, and peppered with technical difficulties, though nonetheless carried quite gracefully along by Ravech and Perez. The first run was scored at literally 2:30 in the morning. This was not a return to what’s familiar and comfortable. Instead, reminders were abundant that quite the opposite was true.

And that’s OK. None of this should look familiar to us. Not because the country or culture or language of the KBO is unfamiliar, but because everything right now is unfamiliar. This was how the ceremonial first pitch was done before the Lotte Giants vs. KT Wiz game:

Later in that contest, former Detroit Tigers infielder Dixon Machado clubbed this three-run dinger, which helped propel the Giants to a come-from-behind victory. I’ll say that again — Dixon Machado, clutch slugger:

Machado wasn’t the only former big leaguer who had a big day on Tuesday. His former Tigers teammate Warwick Saupold pitched a two-hit shutout for the Hanwha Eagles against the SK Wyverns, and here’s former Baltimore Oriole Kim Hyun-Soo going yard in an 8-2 LG Twins victory over the Doosan Bears:

Of course, if you’re only checking up on major leaguers engaged in cool feats, you’re missing out on a ton of extremely fun Korean players. That includes stud 20-year-old slugger Kang Baek-Ho, who went deep Tuesday for the Wiz, or Jeon Jun-Woo, who did this for the Giants:

All 10 teams of the KBO started their seasons on Tuesday, and there was something memorable about each of them — both because of the baseball being played, and the circumstances under which it was taking place. Each game is a chance to learn new things about players you’ve never heard of or had perhaps forgotten. It’s also a chance to have an entirely new baseball-viewing experience, one that isn’t Major League Baseball but also isn’t really an authentic KBO experience either, without fans in the seats and English-speaking American broadcasters on the call. Hopefully, though, it’s an experience that better connects you to both.

The next few days of live televised games won’t require you to stay up as late — you’ll just have to wake up early instead (at least on the east coast). ESPN will carry 5:00 AM EST first pitch times on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and will carry a 4:00 AM tilt on Saturday. It’s also worth noting that CPBL games have been going on for a few weeks now, and typically have live streaming options available. As of now, no one seems to know for sure when Major League Baseball will resume its own season, let alone when life outside of sports in the United States will begin to resemble what it did just a couple of months ago. But in some parts of the world, the wait for baseball is over. That means home runs and bat flips, and it also means replay reviews and rain delays. How I missed it all.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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3 years ago

Does anyone know what the best way to stream the KBO games on delay would be, without a cable package? Basically I want to stream games on a web browser or a Roku the next day after I wake up – and at whatever time I want.

It’s unclear to me if ESPN+ at $5/mo will let me stream the games the next day. I think I could do it on Hulu, but that package is a cool $55/month, and i’ll pass.

Has anyone figured out the best way to do this?

3 years ago
Reply to  ResumeMan

I was able to stream the Dinos-Lions game today on replay on ESPN’s Roku app. But as Tony said it was kind of clunky. The announcers were weirdly unenthusiastic about it all, and that is especially noticeable given that there are no fans. If a fly ball just barely misses being a home run, also just barely misses being caught, the outfielder immediately faceplants into the wall, and then a run comes around to score, that’s a really eventful and exciting baseball play! The lack of obvious excitement from _anyone_ took me out of it quite a bit. Compare with the Korean announcer’s call of the home run; it’s like night and day.

3 years ago

I agree with this. The 2nd game was sort of half-televised, with a constant stream of visitors chatting with the announcers and only passing acknowledgement of the game events, at best. Since I was working and not able to keep my eyes on the screen 100% of the time, I might as well have not had the game on TV. I had no idea what was happening with no verbal cues (but I did get to hear from Lindblom’s wife have an involved conversation with the non-announcing announcers for a full inning (11%) of the broadcast).