by Matt Habel

Baseball is Back: KBO Opening Day

I’ll be the first to admit that a good amount of my reasoning for watching the Korean Baseball Organization opening day broadcast was for the novelty of it. How many times in my lifetime will I get to watch two people call a baseball game from their homes that are thousands of miles away from the actual game? Add in the fact that there would be no fans in the stands and that the game is in Korea, and this baseball game amid a current global pandemic was going to be a completely new experience. And after almost two months of doing pretty much the same thing every day, I was there for it. Right from the start though, the game became more than a novelty. It became good entertainment.


While Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez waited out a pre-game rain delay (go figure), they were joined by their first interview guest of the night, Eric Thames. I knew that Thames previously played in Korea then subsequently signed with the Brewers and absolutely destroyed Reds pitching for a year or two. I did not know much about him as a person, but that changed after just ten or fifteen minutes of him recounting his KBO experiences. Thames was extremely likable and was a great introduction to the league. The night was off to a good start. 


Almost immediately after first pitch, I noticed that the style of play was different from that of the MLB. I am not one to complain about all the strikeouts and homeruns we see in the majors, but it was a bit refreshing to see so many balls in play. The first play of the game was a well hit ball to the right-center gap that was chased down for a great grab. That theme stayed consistent all night with several very nice plays from all over the diamond, including third-baseman for the NC Dinos, Suk-min Park. Park is known for not only his high-level ability as a player, but also for his personality. Several times throughout the game he was seen joking around with opposing players, with his demeanor reminiscent of former-Red Brandon Phillips. 


On the mound, the Samsung Lions pitcher, Jung-hyun Baek, had a super-smooth delivery that appeared much less taxing on the body than most major league pitching motions. He obviously wasn’t throwing as hard, but he seemed to have decent stuff. His counterpart, former big-leaguer Drew Rucinksi, had a very nice sinker/slider combo working that led to some solid strikeouts. Both players struggled a bit with control, each issuing four walks in six innings, but it was clear that they are both very good baseball players. The talent level was obviously not comparable to a Luis Castillo or Sonny Gray, but nonetheless, it was enjoyable baseball. 


The bats for the Lions were largely quiet but the NC Dinos (my randomly acquired favorite team) picked up right where they left off last year when they led the league in homeruns. It was not until the third and final dinger of the night, however, when I witnessed my first live KBO bat flip, courtesy of Chang-min Mo, and it did not disappoint. I wish bat flips were more prominent in MLB, so this is one cultural difference that I will very much enjoy while watching the Korean players. An interesting bit for Reds fans was that the homerun came during an interview with MLB/KBO Insider Daniel Kim, who had just finished explaining that the Samsung Lions ballpark in Daegu was very hitter-friendly, similar to Great American Ballpark.


In addition to Thames and Kim, Jeff Passan made an appearance and provided a glimmer of hope for baseball’s return on the home front, while also just being nice to listen to in general. In terms of the rest of the broadcast, I was pretty surprised by how well Ravech and Perez did with such unique circumstances. There was a bit of cross talk every now and then, but all things considered, it did not sound like it was their first time calling a KBO game on live TV, let alone in separate locations and at the mercy of technology. It will be interesting to see how the broadcasts progress through the year and how well they can follow along with individual story lines. 


To add to the festivities of the night, I was following along with a FanGraphs chat hosted by Ben Clemens during the majority of the game. This was very helpful for learning about certain players and finding some good stat sites (mykbo.net and kbofancystats.com are good places to start), and also sparked further intrigue about this baseball league I know so little about. Multiple people commented on how different the environment is without fans and that these stadiums are special places to watch games during non-pandemic circumstances. After stumbling across some highlights that confirmed this sentiment, I found myself seriously considering a trip to Korea somewhere down the line. 

Nothing will ever take the place the Major League Baseball while it is gone. Eventually though, the Reds will return to fill that irreplaceable hole in all of our hearts and bring some normalcy back to our lives. But for now, I am more than willing to give the KBO a fair shot at filling the void. 

[Highlights for the game can be seen here]

 

Matthew Habel was born and mostly raised in Cincinnati and was always a Reds fan growing up. Ironically, he did not become die-hard until moving to Pittsburgh after college and experiencing the 2013 Wild Card game behind enemy lines. While the "Cueto Game" is one of the worst sports moments of his life, he became enamored with the analytics side of the game after reading Big Data Baseball and watching the Pirates organization end their postseason drought. He started writing for Redleg Nation in 2017 and has enjoyed continuously learning more about the sport. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon where he loves exploring the great outdoors. Find him on Twitter @MattadorHeyBull