Bat flips, cheerleaders and bowing after a beanball — what you need to know about the KBO

·8 min read

Americans are about to meet a new brand of baseball — where bats flips are the norm, the crowd is usually more raucous and sometimes the pitcher bows to the hitter after a beanball.

The KBO, Korea’s professional baseball league, is coming to ESPN 2 and the ESPN app, the network announced Monday. This makes Korean baseball one of the few live sports options for American audiences, as U.S. sports remain shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sports-hungry viewers can catch Korean baseball six days per week on ESPN 2, but they’ll have to wake up early or stay up late in most cases. The games will start at 5:30 a.m. ET most days. Tuesday is opening day in Korea and that brings the NC Dinos vs. the Samsung Lions at 1 a.m. ET. The Doosan Bears, the defending champs, are in action Wednesday at 5:30 a.m. You can find the full schedule here.

Korean baseball’s place in America prior to this was more highlight-driven. We’d consume the bat flips and the cool moments on YouTube or social media. Much of that was thanks to Dan Kurtz, an American who studied abroad in Korea, fell in love with the KBO and brought it back to the U.S.

He started in 2000 and has spent the last 20 years writing about the game in English and compiling the best Korean baseball moments for American fans. What started as a message board has turned into a YouTube channel and popular Twitter account.

This also makes him the perfect person to help us get up to speed with the teams, stars and rituals of the KBO. So if you’re wondering who the KBO’s version of the Yankees are or who’s the closest thing they have to Mike Trout, you’re in the right place.

The KBO, Korea's baseball league, is coming to America via broadcast deal with ESPN. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
The KBO, Korea's baseball league, is coming to America via broadcast deal with ESPN. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports: What's the biggest difference American fans would notice about the way baseball is played in the KBO?

Dan Kurtz: One of the differences fans would have noticed in the past, is the loud and raucous environment that games are played in. But due to the pandemic of COVID-19, that part will be missing and KBO games won’t quite have the same feel and atmosphere that they have had in the past. One aspect fans may notice is that while the game of baseball may be pretty much the same, certain unwritten rules may be different in the KBO vs MLB.

Most people know about the bat flips that occur in the KBO, but what they don’t know is that while it may earn you a beanball in MLB, there’s no retribution for displaying such flair and skill in the KBO. Speaking of beanballs, if you are a younger pitcher and you happen to hit a veteran guy, if you do not take off your hat and bow, benches will empty. KBO and MLB are both the same sport, but each has its different baseball culture which fans may notice when they begin watching. It’s not to say one baseball culture is better than another, it’s just simply different and, in my opinion, adds to the sport.

Which team do you think American fans mostly likely want to jump on the bandwagon of?

Kurtz: If you are looking to be a fan of a very successful team over the past several seasons or so, then that would be the Doosan Bears. They have appeared in the Korean Series six out of the last seven years. They have won three titles in that span. They are an all-around solid team and have shown that they are an elite KBO team.

If you’re looking for more of an underdog team, then you may want to look at the Kiwoom Heroes. They are the only team in the league not owned by a large corporation (they are owned by group of share holders) and they sell naming rights to their team, thus the other year Kiwoom Securities, bought them and slapped their name on the front of the jerseys. The Heroes are a very frugal team that knows how to find success on the field, despite not being the biggest spender in the league.

Who are the Yankees of the KBO?

Kurtz: The most storied team in the league is the KIA Tigers. They have the most championships with 11 titles to their name. They last won a Korean Series in 2017 and are looking to make another run at a ring with Matt Williams at the helm.

Is there a Mike Trout of the KBO?

Kurtz: While currently I’d say there’s no hands-down best player in the league, I’d say there are few stars around the league that could share that comparison. Strictly referring to Korean players, I’d put NC’s catcher Yang Eui-ji in the mix. He’s the league’s best catcher hands down and one of the league’s best hitters. For pitchers, now with the recent departure of Kim Kwang-hyun [to the St. Louis Cardinals], KIA’s own Yang Hyeon-jong is the top domestic arm in the league. Yang has been at the top of his game for a while (was even put up for posting in 2014) and he looks to continue his success this season.

Which ex-MLB player is the most fun to watch in KBO right now?

Kurtz: For the guys returning to the league this season, I enjoy watching Kiwoom’s Jake Brigham and LG’s Tyler Wilson go out there and pitch. I also like watching KT’s Mel Rojas Jr. show off his bat and glove (caveat, he’s not played in MLB yet).

What's something that you think the KBO does well that doesn't happen in MLB?

Kurtz: Currently, I’d say the way the KBO approached the COVID-19 pandemic has been quite successful. Hopefully, MLB is paying close attention as well as the fans, because the methods and safeguards may be coming to MLB. I also think that the KBO does a good job of looking at new ways to better the league. Over the past few years, the KBO has implemented a few speed-up rules ahead of MLB and MiLB. While in the past, the league may have been slow to embrace change, over recent years it has done a better job at changing and looking at new ways to better the league and sport in Korea.

Over the years, we've seen a lot of great bat flips and announcer calls from the KBO. Would you say the game is a little more "fun" there?

Kurtz: Personally, I’d say from a fan perspective, the KBO is fun. While the caliber may not be the same as MLB, the KBO is what it is. The KBO and the players play at a high level, but also know to have a bit of fun on the field and allow their emotions and flair occur. As I mentioned before, the KBO atmosphere when attending a game is quite different than an MLB game. From loud music, cheerleaders, organized cheers and generally a fun party-like atmosphere, once you return to a MLB stadium, you realize that not only is KBO cheaper to attend, it’s also a bit more party-like than MLB.

Speaking of bat flips, who's the best bat flipper in the KBO right now?

Kurtz: Currently, my favorite is Lotte’s Jeon Jun-woo. He has a very smooth release and when he hits home runs, it’s quite fluid and artistic-like.

The KBO embraces two things that are divisive in the states — a universal DH and allowing ties. Are fans on board with that? Or is it just as divisive there?

Kurtz: KBO fans really haven’t seen the NL-style rule before, so my guess is they don’t know how they’d feel about it since they’ve never experienced it before. As an NL guy, I am all for pitchers having to hit and managers having to manager later in games, so while I’d like to see it in the KBO. I don’t think it will be coming anytime soon.

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