In the past few months, there has been a dearth of live sports on TV due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Deemed too risky, professional sports leagues in the United States have been delayed until the coronavirus situation improves. Fans might be surprised to see a familiar sight on ESPN, however: live baseball. The difference is that the player names on the jerseys are in Korean, and the games are taking place halfway across the world. That doesn’t mean American fans can’t enjoy the Korean version of the game they know so well, though; the rules are essentially the same, and there is a wide variety of talent.
A few Americans currently play in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) in fact, representing some of that talent. Among others, American Tyler Saladino, former infielder for the Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers, is now an infielder for the Samsung Lions, as well as Adrian Sampson, another American, is a pitcher for the Lotte Giants. Quite a few South Korean athletes have played in the MLB as well. Ryu Hyun-Jin became one of the best pitchers in South Korea before signing a six-year, $36 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is now known as one of the best pitchers in the league and is currently signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. The exchange of players between the two countries showcases their shared passion for baseball and the abundance of talent that exists in both countries.
Today, baseball is the most popular sport in South Korea, according to a 2019 survey in which 62% of respondents said they were fans of baseball. The sport was introduced to the Korean peninsula in the late 19th century, and the Korean Baseball Organization was founded in 1982. South Korea has become one of the most well-known countries in the world for the sport, winning the bronze medal at the Olympics in 2000 and the gold medal in 2008.
Games happen live early in the morning for American fans, but recordings of the games are often also played in the afternoon on ESPN. Their first KBO broadcast in early May had around 173,000 viewers watching, and the channel has been broadcasting a game every day except for Mondays, which the KBO has off. A limited number of fans have even been allowed back into the stadiums, considering South Korea’s tight rein on the coronavirus pandemic, giving the games a previously absent and albeit less boisterous live audience feel.
Andy Eller is a research intern in the young professionals program at the East-West Center. He is currently a fourth year student at the University of Chicago studying law, letters, and society, and minoring in East Asian Languages and Civilizations.