The Korean Baseball Organization has stolen my heart

A TV cameraman films in the empty stadium as a part of precaution against the new coronavirus during the pre-season baseball game between Doosan Bears and LG Twins in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. South Korea's professional baseball league has decided to begin its new season on May 5, initially without fans, following a postponement over the coronavirus.

After one night spent watching the Korean Baseball Organization, I’m a die-hard NC Dinos fan. How did that happen?

At 12:42 a.m. ET on Tuesday, I clicked on Sung-Bum Na’s name on mykbostats.com, and a message popped up. “This website is under heavy load (queue full),” it said. “We’re sorry, too many people are accessing this website at the same time. We’re working on the problem. Please try again later.” That was the first sign that maybe, this would be an unusual night. It was Opening Day in the Korean Baseball Organization. Baseball was back — in a way.

Sung-Bum Na is an outfielder for the NC Dinos, the KBO team I’d just decided to support. He’s a star: he’s a career .316/.383/.534 hitter, and besides last season, when he missed all but 23 games with a left knee injury, he’s hit at least 22 home runs a year every season since 2014. According to ESPN, Na is a Scott Boras client, and might well have an MLB career in his future.

I chose the Dinos for very little reason. Their game was on TV, the first live professional baseball game broadcast in the U.S. this year. The Big Lead compared their opponents, the Samsung Lions, to the St. Louis Cardinals, which made them an automatic no. So there it was. I was a Dinos fan.

And so far, I’m happy with my choice. The Dinos are an easy team to root for. On Opening Day, they ran away with a decisive 4-0 win against the Lions, and they’ve got an exciting, young roster that should contend for the KBO championship.

For a 1 a.m. broadcast of a baseball game in Korea, it felt normal. Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez commentated on ESPN. Eric Thames joined in for a pregame interview. There was even a 30-minute rain delay, just to drive home the point that no, this really isn’t what’s supposed to be happening. But eventually, a baseball game started. I’d never heard of all but one of the starters on either team, and I barely knew the league itself. It didn’t matter. It was a baseball game, and like millions of American baseball fans, it was what I’ve been waiting for since March.

It was a great game too. People who fret about the state of the American game would have loved it. Pitchers on both teams worked quickly: the game took two hours and 47 minutes from start to finish, a refreshing contrast from MLB, when you can literally run the Kentucky Derby between pitches. The Dinos hit three home runs, all absolutely crushed, but also showed finesse when they got the opportunity. When Na batted in the first inning, he shot a line-drive single the other way to left field, and shades of Jeff McNeil shined through his swing.

As I researched the Dinos before first pitch, besides Na, two names stood out: Chang-min Mo, an infielder, and Sok-min Park, a third baseman. Both are 34 years old — Mo will turn 35 this week — but their numbers impress in different ways.

In 2019, Mo batted .305/.358/.466 with 10 home runs. Those aren’t quite superstar numbers, but they’re certainly above average. Since 2015, Mo has posted an OPS of .780 or higher every year. He’s the definition of a dependable, capable hitter.

Park, meanwhile, is a star: he’s a career .289/.403/.501 hitter. He played third base against the lions, and manned the hot corner like a vacuum. Mo, Park, and Na hit the Dinos’ three home runs. Park’s and Mo’s came back-to-back in the sixth inning after Na made a bid for a second homer but fell a foot or so short.

Drew Rucinski, who pitched four seasons in the major leagues for the Angels, Twins, and Marlins, was on the mound for the Dinos. Rucinski, with a darting fastball reaching 93 mph, a sharp curve, and a slider, hit occasional trouble, but worked out of it every time over six scoreless innings. Rucinski, it’s already clear, is a gamer. Jong-Hyeon Won, who finished the ninth after Jae-Whan Bae got into trouble, looked fearsome; it’s only one game, but he looked like a closer. Ui-Ji Yang, the superstar catcher who came over from the Doosan Bears before the 2019 season, looked like, well, a superstar.

Good things are going to happen for the Dinos this year. They’re primed. Na is healthy, the offense is humming, and the pitching staff looks gritty and tough. And best of all, regardless of all that, baseball is back, even if it’s not the way anyone hoped or expected.

So turn on the KBO. Stay up late and watch with the hardest-core baseball fans there are. If you miss baseball — miss it no longer. It’s here.

And root for the NC Dinos. They’re energetic and fun, and they’ve got the coolest mascot around. And they’ve got Sung-Bum Na. You’ll love them. I sure do.

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