A Thankful Baseball Fan Remembers the Contributions of the KBO and CPBL in 2020

The World Series may have been over for the better part of a month now, but that does not mean that professional baseball is done in the year 2020. While the exciting but untraditional 60-game sprint that Major League Baseball hosted this past summer was a short and intense moment of passion for the fans of our national pastime in America, other countries on the other side of the globe have done well to celebrate the game over a longer and more conventional period this year despite the real and stark problems that 2020 has brought us all.

Examples of these nations are readily available in the here and now. Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan opened its league final, the Japan series, just in the past day with the Softbank Hawks defeating the Yomiuri Giants in a 5-1 contest. However, while Japan may be home to the non-American baseball league with arguably the most prestige around the world, there are two other leagues over the course of this year that were more likely to be on the top of a baseball fan’s mind.

One of these leagues that still has the capability to be brought into our homes here in America today is that of the Korean Baseball Organization, which is currently in the midst of its own final act for 2020- The Korean Series. Available to American viewers on a variety of ESPN channels since the KBO’s Opening Day back in early May, the network has religiously shown one game per day on most days since its commencement(Monday is an automatic off day for the KBO and a usual exception for this reason) .

A reality of modern life is that most of our attention spans are short. Today it is easy to remember the wall-to-wall sporting events that we have had at our fingertips as a general public since the MLB, NHL and NBA started their returns at the end of July. Even after the completion of those seasons, we now have college or professional football on most nights to occupy our fandom. With how long of a year 2020 has felt like, it may be harder to remember the four months of radio silence that came from those leagues before the more recent deluge of content that have been provided to us.

For the most unimaginative, those months were a professional sports desert. At best, they had reruns of classic games being broadcast to keep their attention. However for some, the KBO might as well have been the largest reservoir known to man, particularly as a baseball fan. Over the course of about five months, there was a reliable, new, and unpredictable sporting season to follow thanks to the KBO. Those that watched may have quickly recognized the brilliance of the NC Dinos, who established themselves early in the season as the best baseball team on the peninsula and to this point haven’t looked back. Followers learned to understand the inventive ladder-style playoff structure that the KBO uses to incentivize the best records in the league. Foreign names of sluggers like Sung Bum Na, Ah-seop Son and  Euiji Yang became some of the best hitters in baseball, if only for a moment in time, while former MLB journeymen like Aaron Altherr, Preston Tucker and Mel Rojas Jr. also got their chance to shine.

That same Dinos team with Na, Yang and Altherr in tow now finds itself with Korean baseball immortality within arm’s reach. They find themselves in a 2-2 best of 7 series tie with the formidable Doosan Bears. Broadcasts are still reliably on the ESPN family of networks and with MLB having once again come and gone, we can be thankful for the distraction just a little longer as baseball fans.

That’s not to say that everything about the KBO’s presentation on American airwaves has been flawless. That simply hasn’t been the case. ESPN has never truly committed to the product and likely once American sports began to return found themselves without any reason to do so. Games have been originally broadcasted live, which is great, except for the fact that time zones dictate that nearly all games are on American airwaves start somewhere between 1 AM and 6 AM. I found myself recording games to watch them in the evenings for this reason, but multiple times would be disappointed that a late running game would get pre-empted by the start of ESPN’s Mike Greenberg-led morning show Get Up. Having invested 2 hours into a game without any recourse to see its conclusion was absolutely maddening. With the lack of live contests to show instead I always questioned why these games were not replayed in prime time.

Even more frustrating was that ESPN essentially used the KBO broadcasts as a morning show in their own right. For this reason, the games were always taking a back seat to whatever conversation their presenters felt like providing. Split screens were often used to show the faces of the broadcast teams while action was going on. Very little was done to help immerse the viewer in the game. Rather, it was more like a talk show was going on within the backdrop of a baseball game. In one instance, a 3-run, game changing rally in the 7th inning of one contest was barely acknowledged as the broadcasters interviewed an American organist that performs at one of the MLB ballparks. It was just a shame that while ESPN committed money to this product, they didn’t commit themselves to it any deeper than that.

While American sports are back and show no signs of stopping, I wonder if the KBO will return to ESPN in 2021. The obvious need for a live sports product has dissipated, and if how the network handled the KBO is any indication then ESPN doesn’t put a lot of stock into this product. Still, its not like there are a lot of events looking to fill the middle-of-the-night void in their broadcast schedule. It would not surprise me if there wasn’t any return for the KBO at all, but if it does come back, I would hope ESPN would do better to present it. And that’s all I can do… hope. I am thankful for the KBO itself. It is a great league with a lot of talent that got a chance to showcase itself this year, even if it was hamstrung by its distributor.

However, there was one other baseball product available to the masses that didn’t suffer from the same tribulations that the KBO did.

The Chinese Professional Baseball League has a very misleading name. The league doesn’t reside in mainland China whatsoever, but rather on the East Asian island of Taiwan, which due to a number of geo-political reasons that I’d really rather not get into has to often-times refer to itself as part of China in naming conventions.

Whatever the case, the CPBL was able to boast the quickest return of any delayed sporting league on the globe. Season play started April 12th, with less than a month of delay as the Taiwanese people and government put together one of the most impressive COVID mitigation efforts that the world has seen, even allowing them to have near full stadium attendance as the summer transpired. The season was played in full through mid-October with the thrilling conclusion occurring in the Taiwan Series where the upstart Uni-President Lions narrowly made it to the best of 7 contest against the league’s most dominant team the CTBC Brothers and then upset them in a full 7-game slate.

If you jumped onto the CPBL early like I did then you probably consider yourself a mere passerby to the drab and dreary sports desert that I alluded to earlier. The ambitious project to broadcast CPBL games in English was one that actually started on a trial basis. The league’s Rakuten Monkeys provided their own broadcasts for a week to gauge interest on Twitter. Those first games received over 1 million views and soon all teams in the modest but engaging 4-team league were performing their own English broadcasts, jumping at the chance to get in front of eyeballs they would never otherwise have received.

I personally was enthralled from the moment I had heard this was happening, and actually preferred the Twitter-based broadcasts over ESPN. For one, with each team having a feed I was able to pick a team and follow one of them for the season. I picked the Monkeys, who while having the 2nd best record over the course of the entire season unfortunately did not make the playoffs due to the CPBL’s split-season format. Still, over the course of 6 months I grew to know the baseball talents of players like 3rd baseman Lin Li, outfielder Chu Yu-Hsien (who was the hottest hitter in the world, at one point this year) and pitchers Lisalverto Bonilla and Ryan Carpenter. With the league being so small as well, it was easy to pick up on who the best talent was in each organization. In short, the barrier to entry on storylines and context- the kind of thing that ESPN faltered to bring with the KBO, was much easier to pick up in this tidy but enthralling league.

The broadcasts themselves were great while still having faults. Before this past April there was very little market for an English-speaking baseball broadcaster in Taiwan, so the talent pool was very shallow to say the least. Announcers weren’t very polished but their passion and interest for the game shown through. They worked well to explain how the season structure and teams worked. Early in the year I recall them mentioning something that became very apparent as a viewer over time: Taiwan’s hitting talent is significantly ahead of its pitching talent. That means that bullpens aren’t very deep, and managers are much more willing to trust their best starters to pitch deep into games even if they are struggling. I would have never gotten that type of context from ESPN. The time, effort, and passion that the CPBL’s broadcast teams brought to the table was an absolute godsend.

Unfortunately, it only lasted so long. With the return of the MLB in late July there was an understandable and noticeable decline in the eyeballs that viewed the CPBL. The game didn’t go away entirely, but in large part English broadcasts were cut to weekends only. Even more sadly, only Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Taiwan Series were broadcast in English. All the time, attention and continuity that had been there for most of the year ended up being for naught, which is a shame as I found myself sincerely invested and the Taiwan Series ended in an absolute classic.

Down 3 games to 1 in the series, the Lions found themselves on the brink of elimination in Game 5 and facing the only team in the CPBL not only to have a winning record over the course of the full season, but also the only team with a staff ERA below 5 (remember, hitting is better than pitching on the island). But a shutout thrown by Brock Dykxhoorn in Game 5 and a blowout Game 6 brought the Lions back into the series and set the stage for a 7th inning 4-run rally that flipped Game 7 from a 4-3 deficit to a 7-3 lead for the Lions. Had this been MLB, this series would be considered an absolute classic in America.

Now, I am a weird test case. Not only is baseball quite literally one of my favorite things ever, but I also really enjoy international competition. The Olympics are great, but even more I enjoy events like the World Cup, FIBA Basketball World Cup and World Baseball Classic. The idea that these sports are played on all points of the Earth, that they are a common bond across cultures, ideas and races is absolutely fascinating to me. I love the idea of celebrating that. I say this to point out that I am pre-disposed to the idea that baseball half a world away is a really cool. That may not be for others.

But in a year that hasn’t always been the most joyful, there was absolute joy in these leagues that was accessible to everyone that enjoys baseball. There were signs of perseverance that every fan could appreciate both on and off the field. The world is smaller than its ever been, and for the most part this year that has absolutely been to our detriment. But in this one small way, I was thankful that the KBO and CPBL were both only one click and half a world away.

EDIT: Special recognition is deserved for reader Elle Pan who was able to point out that Taiwan is further north on a map than my mind’s eye recalled. I have corrected my description of the island as being part of East Asia. Thank you, Elle.

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