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No MLB? Korean baseball is in full swing—here's what you need to know, from KBO cheerleaders to bat-flipping

Players in action during a baseball game between SK Wyverns and Hanwha Eagles at SK Wyverns club's Happy Dream Ballpark without spectators due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on May 7, 2020 in Incheon, South Korea.
Jong Hyun Kim | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Major League Baseball and its players are still negotiating the terms of a potential start to the 2020 season that likely won't happen until early-July.

In the meantime, with Covid-19 fears shutting down countless businesses and live events around the world, baseball-deprived fans have looked to South Korea, where that country's professional baseball league, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), has been playing live games — without fans in the stands, due to restrictions from the global coronavirus pandemic — since May 5.

And to cater to the millions of fans who are hungry for baseball's stateside return, ESPN even began airing live KBO games on cable earlier this month. (That came after the success of ESPN's live airing of the NFL Draft in April, which drew more than 15 million viewers.)

While ESPN has not yet released any ratings or viewership numbers for those broadcasts, its airing of KBO games has been met with enthusiasm on social media by fans and MLB stars alike.

Los Angeles Dodgers star outfielder Mookie Betts wrote on Twitter after ESPN's KBO announcement: "Welcome back, KBO. We're all watching!"

"I think it's awesome that KBO games are being broadcast on ESPN," Drew Rucinski, a pitcher for the KBO's NC Dinos, who previously pitched in the MLB, including for the Miami Marlins in 2017, tells CNBC Make It. "It's a great opportunity to showcase the talent and level of gameplay that we have here in KBO on a global scale."

Mike Wright, another former MLB pitcher who now plays with Rucinski on the NC Dinos, agreed: "My family loves having the ability to watch me from thousands of miles away! If the family is happy, I'm happy!" he says.

How to watch

ESPN is currently airing six live KBO games per week, with one game airing on either ESPN or ESPN2 each day from Tuesday through Sunday. However, American baseball fans who want to catch live baseball action might have to alter their sleeping schedules to do so, as the live games typically air between 1 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. ET. But sleep-deprived fans can still catch an afternoon re-airing of those games on most days.

For instance, on Tuesday, May 26, ESPN will air the game between the KBO's Samsung Lions and the Lotte Giants at 5:30 a.m. ET. However, that game will be re-aired at 2 p.m. ET later that same day. (Here's a look at ESPN's schedule of KBO games for the upcoming week.)

Fans can also stream the games anytime on the ESPN App (but, you have to be able to provide log-in details for your cable subscription for access). Cord-cutters trying to watch KBO games have to look to live-TV streaming services that include ESPN, such as Sling TV, YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV.

Are the rules of the game different?

As far as the day-to-day game play goes, the KBO's rules are essentially the same as the MLB, so American fans should have no trouble following along.

One difference is that every KBO team employs the "Universal Designated Hitter" rule, where one player in each team's lineup hits in place of the team's pitcher and does not play a position in the field. In the MLB, only American League teams have a designated hitter, while National League teams have to let their pitchers bat.

The KBO's regular season also lasts just 144 games, compared to the MLB's 162-game schedule. And in the KBO, games that are still tied after nine innings will go no more than three extra-innings and can even end in a tie after those 12 innings are played. In the MLB, games that are tied after nine innings can go on indefinitely until one team wins.

How many teams are in the KBO?

Another noticeable difference between the KBO and the MLB is that the Korean league only has 10 professional teams total (the MLB has 30 teams). As such, the league's playoffs are also shorter than the MLB's, with five KBO teams making the postseason, while 10 MLB teams make the playoffs each season.

Of the KBO's 10 teams, five of them have been around since the league was founded in 1982: the Doosan Bears, the Kia Tigers, the LG Twins, the Lotte Giants and the Samsung Lions. The other five teams have joined the league at various points over the past few decades, with the most recent additions being the KT Wiz and the NC Dinos, seven years ago.

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Having a smaller league and teams that play relatively close to one another can make for some intense rivalries. The NC Dinos' Rucinski, who is in his second season with the team, told CNBC Make It that his team's biggest rival is likely the Lotte Giants, who play in Busan, South Korea only about 20 miles away from the NC Dinos in Changwon.

"Their fans travel to our stadium and our fans travel to theirs, so there is always a lot of energy in the stadium during those games," Rucinski said. "Doosan and LG share a stadium [in Seoul] so they have a pretty big rivalry going on too."

For fans wondering which KBO teams are the most popular, the Kia Tigers (located in the southwestern city of Gwangju) are widely considered to be the equivalent of the New York Yankees in the KBO. The team has won 11 championships, more than any other KBO team.

However, the Seoul-based Doosan Bears have been more successful recently, winning three titles in the past five years, including in 2019. So far this season, though, the NC Dinos have had the most success, leading the KBO with 12 wins and just three losses, as of Friday.

How else does it compare to MLB?

In more normal times, KBO games are usually known for providing a raucous atmosphere where fans cheer loudly while beating on drums and chanting their team's fight songs.

"We miss having fans in the stadium," Rucinski says. "They cheer the entire game, regardless of what is happening, which makes for a fun atmosphere."

But even with no fans in the stands, there are still some elements of KBO baseball that stand out.

One of those elements is bat-flipping — where players dramatically toss their bats high into the air after hitting a home run. It's a controversial practice in the U.S., where MLB players sometimes face repercussions for bat flips that some traditionalists see as disrespectful to the pitcher.

In South Korea, though, the practice is widely accepted and seen as a joyous celebration of an exciting moment in any game. In fact, some KBO bat flips have gone viral on social media here in the U.S. over the years, and the practice has even slowly started to show up more in American baseball.

Outfielder Aaron Altherr of the NC Dinos bats in a KBO League game between the NC Dinos and SK Wyverns on May 15 in Incheon, South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun | Getty Images

Rucinski admits that bat-flipping is one of the biggest stylistic differences between the KBO and MLB, but he also notes that the practice "is just a part of the game here. It doesn't have a negative connotation like it does in the U.S."

Rucinski also adds that it's much less likely to see players arguing with umpires in the KBO than in the MLB, where players and coaches are regularly ejected from games for aggressively disputing umpire's calls.

"Arguing with the umpire is one thing that really just doesn't happen here," Rucinski says. "I saw maybe one guy tossed from a game all last season."

Aaron Altherr, an outfielder for the NC Dinos who played for the MLB's Philadelphia Phillies from 2014 to 2019, tells CNBC Make It that another major difference he's already noticed in the KBO is the presence of team cheerleaders, which do not exist in the MLB.

"The biggest difference would probably be the fact that there are cheerleaders here and they play the home players' cheer songs throughout the whole at bat," Altherr says.

In fact, not only do KBO teams all have their own fight songs, but cheerleaders and fans also typically cheer on individual players with their own, customized tunes. Without fans in the stands this season, KBO teams' cheerleaders still cheer on their home teams and players, but they now wear protective masks while doing so.

Doosan Bears cheerleaders during the KBO League game between the NC Dinos and Doosan Bears at the Jamsil Baseball Stadium on May 20, 2020 in Seoul.
Han Myung-Gu | Getty Images

What's it like without fans?

"It's definitely a weird atmosphere playing with no fans in the stands," Altherr says. "It feels more like we're playing scrimmage games rather than actual season games. I'm hoping they can bring the fans back in soon."

With no fans in the stands, KBO teams have actually tried to make their stadiums feel less empty by installing banners with photos of fans in the stands in place of the real thing. However, the league has been actively planning for at least some fans to return to games this summer, depending on how the pandemic progresses. The KBO is reportedly considering allowing teams to fill stadiums to no more than 20% capacity as soon as June.

Banners showing faces of fans are placed in the seating area of Happy Dream Ballpark during a baseball game between SK Wyverns and Hanwha Eagles as the game played without spectators due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on May 7, 2020 in Incheon, South Korea.
Jong Hyun Kim | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Rucinski and Wright both agree that they're hoping fans will soon be able to return to KBO games in some capacity. Wright notes that "the fans were by far what I was looking forward to the most" when he signed with the NC Dinos before this season.

"So, it's a little disappointing to not have [fans], however it has made for a great dugout atmosphere and getting to know my team mates even better," Wright says.

Which players do you need to know?

NC Dinos catcher Eui-Ji Yang, 33, is the league's top returning player, according to ESPN, following a year in which the catcher led all KBO hitters in batting average and slugging percentage while hitting 20 home runs. Kia Tigers left-handed pitcher Hyeon-Jong Yang, 32, is another top player to watch, according to ESPN, as he won the league's 2017 MVP award and pitched to an impressive 2.29 ERA last year.

However, if fans are looking for a younger Korean player to root for, Baseball America recently named 24-year-old shortstop Ha-Seong Kim, of the Kiwoom Heroes, as the best MLB prospect currently playing in the KBO. Kim is an impressive hitter with speed (33 stolen bases in 2019) who many experts believe could end up playing in the MLB within the next few years.

Last year's MVP of the KBO was American pitcher Josh Lindblom, who pitched for the Doosan Bears and led the league in wins (20) and strikeouts (189) before signing a three-year, $9.1 million deal with the MLB's Milwaukee Brewers in December.

Lindblom is just the latest American baseball player to experience success after joining the KBO that paves the way for an MLB deal. In 2016, the Brewers also handed a three-year deal (worth over $15 million) to hitter Eric Thames following his own MVP performance in South Korea.

In part for that very possibility, former MLB players head to the KBO every year in the hopes of either furthering their careers internationally or using a successful stint in the KBO as a springboard to a lucrative MLB deal. Every KBO team is allotted three roster spots for foreign players (with Altherr, Rucinski and Wright filling those roles for the NC Dinos in 2020). Other notable former MLB players in the KBO this year include pitcher Casey Kelly of the LG Twins, first baseman Jose Miguel Fernandez of the Doosan Bears and Lotte Giants pitcher Dan Straily.

Meanwhile, the Kia Tigers also have a few familiar faces in their dugout, with former MLB All-Star and coach Matt Williams serving as the team's manager alongside hitting coach Hee-Seop Choi (a Korean-born former major leaguer who most recently played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005).

How much do KBO players earn?

Lotte Giants first baseman Dae-Ho Lee is the highest-paid player in the KBO at $2.2 million per year. The 37-year-old played for the Seattle Mariners in 2016, but he's had more success in the KBO, where he was the 2010 MVP. The highest-paid MLB player is Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, with a $37.7 million salary in 2020 (though that amount will be prorated based on players' agreement with MLB owners for a shortened season).

The league minimum salary for KBO players is 27 million won (which is about $21,700), compared to the MLB's league minimum salary of $563,500. Foreign players in the KBO have their salaries capped at $1 million in their first season in the league. 

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