With the MLB season still suspended, two professional baseball leagues in Asia have started their seasons. Four former Red Sox will be playing in the KBO.
With no concrete end in sight to the ongoing suspension of the 2020 Major League Baseball season, Red Sox fans and baseball fans, in general, have turned their eyes to Asia. Two professional leagues, the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) of Taiwan and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in South Korea have started play amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Starved for any live baseball to watch, fans of the sport were elated when ESPN announced earlier this past week that they’d broadcast one KBO game per day, for a total of six per week. Albeit at the inconvenient times of 5:30 am Eastern Time on Tuesday through Friday, 4 am Eastern Time on Saturday, and 1 am Eastern Time on Sunday. That fourteen-hour time difference can be a killer.
I know this firsthand as I went to South Korea last year on a business trip and while I was there, I made a point of attending a KBO game. KBO is the Korean equivalent of the major leagues here in the USA and while the level of play isn’t quite as good as what we have here, I’d put it solidly in the AAA/AAAA range in terms of the caliber of play. What really separates it from MLB, though, is the fan experience.
As I saw firsthand when I attended an NC Dinos in Changwon home game against the Doosan Bears, Korean baseball fans treat the game as one huge celebration. You’re allowed to bring your own food into the games, fried chicken and beer are their staple snacks the way a hot dog and beer are here, the 2011 Red Sox would LOVE that! And there’s a constant stream of cheers and songs sung by fans and led by team cheerleaders throughout the entire game.
With no fans allowed in the stands at KBO games right now, it’s slightly sad that American baseball fans won’t get a chance to see what the games are like over there on television. In all of the countless major league and minor league games I’ve attended in my life, I’ve never had an experience even close to what I saw in Korea. Still, actual live baseball is being played and we’re lucky enough to be able to watch it.
In addition to the many excellent Korean players who come over from KBO to play in MLB, there are numerous former American MLB players who go to Korea to play in their league (I saw a few at the game I went to). For the 2020 KBO season, there is a small handful who have past ties (some quite tenuous) to the Red Sox. Strangely enough, all of them are pitchers.
William Cuevas will be familiar to Red Sox fans since he was the most recent member of the team, having a cup of coffee in 2016 and again in 2018. He appeared in twelve total games for the Sox, three in 2016, and nine in 2018 (including one start). In 22 total innings pitched for the Red Sox, he had an 0-3 record, an ERA of 5.51, and 23 strikeouts. He’s been playing for the KT Wiz since 2019 (teams in Korea are named after their parent companies, not their home cities).
Next up is Raul Alcantara, who was drafted by the Red Sox and spent two years in their minor league system before being traded to the Oakland Athletics. He played two seasons with the A’s, appearing in 13 games (with nine starts) between 2016 and 2017, amassing a 2-5 record, a 7.19 ERA, and 26 strikeouts. After playing for the KT Wiz in 2019, he currently plays for the Doosan Bears and was their opening day starter this season.
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The third player is Casey Kelly, who bounced around between the San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves, and San Francisco Giants playing four seasons at the major league level between 2012 and 2018. His connection to the Red Sox is that he was their first-round draft pick in 2008 (at #30).
The Sox traded him to San Diego where he made his MLB debut before blowing out his arm and requiring Tommy John surgery. He’s been with the LG Twins since 2019 and has the distinction of being the highest-ranked former MLB prospect currently playing in the KBO.
Finally, the oldest player of the bunch is 39-year-old Seung Song who is originally from South Korea. He signed as an international free agent with Boston in 1999 and played in the minor leagues for the Red Sox, Montreal Expos, and San Francisco Giants until 2006, never advancing to the major league level.
In 2007, he went back to Korea and has been on the Lotte Giants ever since, racking up a respectable 107-83 record with a 4.46 ERA and 1213 strikeouts in 13 KBO seasons. While none of these players were impact guys for the Red Sox (and honestly, the only one I had even heard of before was Cuevas), all have gotten a second chance to play in the KBO as they carry their Red Sox ties, however small, with them.
For more information about COVID-19, visit the CDC’s website or the website for your state’s Department of Health.