The Korean Baseball Organization will begin its season Tuesday after a monthlong postponement, and the league features a local flair.
Tyler Wilson, who was a star at Midlothian High School before pitching for Virginia from 2008 to 2011, enters his third season as a member of the LG Twins. ESPN reportedly is negotiating for the rights to KBO games, meaning local fans might have a chance to watch Wilson.
“It’s not the MLB,” Wilson said of the KBO. “It’s very different than the MLB, but that doesn’t make it any better or any worse, it just is different. If people come into it expecting it to be the big leagues, it’s not going to be that at all, but it’s just as enjoyable.”
There’s a noticeable talent gap between the KBO and Major League Baseball, according to Wilson, who knows what it’s like at both levels. Wilson spent a few years in the minor leagues and three seasons in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles before joining the KBO.
Since his arrival, he’s been one of the better pitchers in the KBO. He won 14 games a season ago while logging 185 innings and posting an ERA of 2.92.
Through two KBO seasons, Wilson has a 2.99 ERA in 355 innings, and he’s 23-11 with 42 quality starts in 56 game started. He’s been a dependable starter.
While the league isn’t quite as competitive as the major leagues, it’s still a professional league with quality players. In Wilson’s eyes, however, it’s the fans that set the 10-team league apart from other professional leagues.
“It’s electric,” Wilson said of the game-day atmosphere. “I’ve never pitched in a World Series, but I pitched in a College World Series and some pretty significant big league games too, and it’s like that every game. There will be games where we’ll be losing 20-2 for an extreme example, and it’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, we make the last out and the fans are like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t believe we didn’t score 18 there in the ninth.’ I admire that. I appreciate that, and it just shows how committed they are.”
Wilson spoke glowingly of the fans, who sing a unique song for every batter when he takes the plate. While MLB players might have a walk-up song, it usually fades out quickly before the at-bat without much fanfare — unless it’s the Washington Nationals singing “Baby Shark” for Gerardo Parra — but fans in the KBO sing a song for each player throughout each at-bat.
A player of the game is named after each win during the 144-game season, and players go and stand on a small stage and address the crowd. Fans cheer as the player does an interview.
Unfortunately for the KBO, the season is set to start without fans in the stands due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Playing games with more eyes tuned into the league — it’s one of the few professional leagues competing in the next few weeks anywhere in the world — worries Wilson. He knows how critical fans are to the league’s success and games without those supporters in the stands won’t quite be the same.
He threw in an exhibition game recently without fans, and the experience was unusual.
“I can hear my spikes going into the dirt as I’m walking around,” Wilson said. “I can hear the clicks in the clacks, and I can hear the coaches talking in the dugout. I can hear the broadcaster up in the booth, and it’s just different.”
A batter stepping to the plate helped Wilson lock back into the game, but the experience still represents a drastic change compared to the usual fanfare at KBO games.
In addition to competing in empty stadiums, players also have their temperatures taken when arriving at the stadium as a precaution. There are restrictions to keep media isolated from the players, with interviews taking place in a conference room with reporters on one side of the room and players on the other.
When Wilson returned to South Korea after about 12 days in the United States, waiting to see when the season would begin, he was required to take a coronavirus test and quarantine for 14 days even without testing positive.
The country has taken steps to reduce the spread of the virus, which has led to a steep decline in new cases.
Wilson says precautions, such as games without fans, are still being taken, but public venues in South Korea such as malls, restaurants and subways are open.
Wilson hopes to one day return to Virginia full-time with his wife and twins. He keeps close tabs on the news in the United States. As his home country remains largely locked down and under numerous restrictions, South Korea is largely open with sports returning.
“It’s unique because I’m so in tune to what’s going on with my family and everything in Charlottesville and everything in my home country,” Wilson said. “I mean, it’s my home, so to be tapped into that but then be able to walk out of my apartment and see life going on as normal, it’s an emotional challenge.”
It’s an unusual and challenging time here and across the globe. For UVA fans, Wilson’s season provides some sporting relief during a time when Virginia sports remain on hold.