SPORTS-BBO-KOREA-OPENINGDAY-2-GET

Chung Eun-won of Hanwha Eagles bats during the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) League opening game between SK Wyverns and Hanwha Eagles at the empty SK Happy Dream Ballpark on Tuesday in Incheon, South Korea.

It’s uncertain when professional sports of any kind are returning in America.

No one knows if the NBA or NHL are going to complete their regular and postseasons. Major League Baseball is hopeful to start later this summer, and while the NFL is conducting business as usual, that might be far too optimistic.

Sports fans have the option to relive memories as past games are aired daily on several networks, but for those who want true, live action, check no further than ESPN in the early mornings (re-airs during the afternoon). The sports network giant has signed a deal to air games of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) to fill a void from the loss of the major leagues and most live sports in America.

The league, with 10 teams filtered around South Korea, was supposed to start its season at the same time as MLB but the coronavirus pandemic thwarted those plans. But after a month’s delay, the Korean league kicked off on Tuesday, and one of the circuit’s five games aired live on ESPN at 1 a.m.

Yes, it’s in South Korea so the names and teams are going to be very unfamiliar to American baseball fans. But it’s live baseball so fans in the U.S. are likely tuning in (if Twitter interactions during that first game are any indication, they tuned in big time). Even Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts tweeted that he was watching.

The Korean league runs a 144-game schedule, usually from mid-March to late September, with playoffs following the regular season. It plans on playing a full slate this season although it started nearly five weeks late and would be suspended for a time if any player tests positive for the virus.

There’s no spitting allowed and there are no fans in the stands (not yet at least). ESPN will be airing six games weekly with American announcers broadcasting the game from home and highlights appearing on SportsCenter. The way the KBO operates in the early going may be an indication of how MLB will pick up play when it’s safe to do so. Rumors say MLB could return on July 1, but that’s an optimistic prognostication.

BECAUSE South Korea is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, the games are aired live on the ESPN networks early in the morning. Games are slated for 5:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 4 a.m. on Saturdays and 1 a.m. on Sundays. Re-airs of the games are usually scheduled for 2 or 3 p.m. daily so American fans looking for action don’t have to schedule an early wake-up call to watch. Some may not want anything to do with the Korean league due to the extreme unfamiliarity, but other sports fans in the United States are desperate for live action of any kind.

THREE current MLB players hail from South Korea — Tampa Bay Rays infielder Ji-man Choi and Texas Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, neither of whom played in the KBO, and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu, who played in the KBO from 2006-12 before signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ryu, the 2006 league MVP, was the first player from the KBO to join an MLB team. Washington Nationals first baseman/outfielder Eric Thames played three seasons in South Korea (2014-16), winning MVP honors in 2015 following a season in which he hit .381 with 47 home runs, 40 stolen bases and 140 RBIs.

Some players have gone to Korea after their MLB careers have ended.

For example, pitcher Dan Straily — who made eight starts for Baltimore last season — signed a one-year contract with a Korean team and started the opener. Former MLBers Chan Ho Park, Hee-Seop Choi and Byung-Hyn Kim also played in the KBO after their MLB stints concluded. Some current Korean players may soon find themselves on MLB teams as well.

Korean rules are similar to those in America, with a few exceptions.

There are cheerleaders, who dance on top of dugouts. Pitchers who hit batters often apologize by removing their hat and bowing to the hitter (a sign of respect in Korean culture). The Korean game utilizes a universal designated hitter and games are concluded after 12 innings in a tie if the score remains deadlocked. Bat flips following home runs are prevalent in Korea while they are frowned upon in the United States because it’s seen as disrespectful to pitchers.

IN THE opening game Tuesday on ESPN, the Samsung Lions hosted the NC Dinos with ESPN’s Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez on the call from their respective homes over a shared internet video chat service. The initial game was delayed due to rain (of course it was) and started about a half hour late. The game, which featured interviews from MLB insider Jeff Passan and KBO insider Daniel Kim, and likely introduced many American fans to Korean baseball, was won by NC, 4-0. It was an entertaining game, and ended in less than three hours.

Sure, these games don’t have Jacob deGrom pitching to Freddie Freeman. There’s no Gerrit Cole against J.D. Martinez. These games might not have the appeal that a Major League Baseball game does. But it’s live baseball, something we haven’t had (save for a few weeks of MLB spring training) since October. It’s a step in the right direction for a world dealing with something unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It might not be the baseball you want, but perhaps it’s the baseball you need. Let’s enjoy some semblance of normalcy.

(Jeff Madigan, a Times Herald sports writer, can be reached at jmadigan0408@yahoo.com)

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