(WFRV) – When the coronavirus pandemic struck, sporting events around the world came to an abrupt stop. Networks began running best of games, sports reporters were either furloughed or asked to help with newsgathering, and athletes took to social media with snapshots of their daily lives like never before. And while the virus forced leagues around the world to figure out a way back onto the field, in South Korea, the KBO was beginning to dust off home plate.
With an agreement between ESPN and the Korean Baseball Organization, the league found its way into American living rooms for the first time seemingly overnight.
Whether it is a chance to restart a career or reinvent an athlete’s game, the Korean Baseball Organization, or KBO, is the land of opportunity.
The Milwaukee Brewers, not necessarily known for its connection to Korea, boast a couple of success stories in Eric Thames and Josh Lindblom. However, there are two other names connected to Wisconsin that often go undiscussed, two people largely considered American pioneers of the KBO: Ryan Sadowski and Jerry Royster.
Before we take the mound, here is a quick guide to the KBO:
- There are 10 teams
- Only three foreign players are allowed on each roster (two players prior to 2014)
- KBO started in 1982
- Teams are named after companies, not cities
- 144-game season with a 5-team playoff
- Season lasts from late-March through late-October
Royster and Sadowski make memories in Milwaukee
In 2002, Milwaukee parted ways with then-manager Davie Lopes just 15 games into the season. Royster was Lopes’ bench coach, and was tasked with replacing his friend as the interim manager.
“We thought we were trying to build something, and obviously things didn’t work out. Taking over for him, it was brutal actually, to be honest. When I got the call that they were letting him go, I put up quite a fight. I heard from our general manager before they even offered me the job, I was fighting for Davie,” said Jerry Royster.
The Brewers quickly took the interim tag away and named Royster the manager, but it was short-lived. Milwaukee finished the season with a 56-106 record, their only season with one hundred losses.
“It was the worst season in Milwaukee history as far as wins and losses go, but the experience itself was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about myself and dealing with people,” Royster said. “You learn quickly, and every day is a new experience. and every day somebody has something that needs your help, and at the same time you have to be trying to win baseball games.”
On June 28, 2009, Ryan Sadowski, a largely unknown pitcher within the San Francisco Giants organization, was called up to make his major league debut against the Milwaukee Brewers – a team on the upswing led by Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and company – at Miller Park.
It was a day that would forever cement Milwaukee as a special place for Sadowski.
The 26-year-old pitched six innings, struck out a pair, and allowed just four hits. The Giants won 7-0 and Sadowski picked up the first big league victory of his career.
“It was so special. I look back at it now, and I have the lineup card here in my office. I see names like Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and you see the guys that were on that team. It was a really good team, on top of the fact it was your first win,” said Sadowski.
“It’s one of those unforgettable moments that, when you’re in it, you’ve played so many baseball games and you’ve experienced so many ups and downs, you don’t get to appreciate it for what it really is, but at the same time you’re kind of conditioned to not appreciate it for what it is.”
And with that, Sadowski was beginning to consider a career in The Land of the Morning Calm.
Getting off the ‘DFA-train’: Coming to the KBO
In 2009, Sadowski pitched in six games with the Giants, earning two wins, before making the jump to Korea in 2010.
A common misconception about the KBO is that American players that head overseas cannot pitch in the MLB. For Sadowski, it’s more about having the opportunity for an expanded role. A player that may not have seen the field all that often in the MLB becomes a daily contributor on a KBO roster.
“Slight misconception is that guys that go to Japan or Korea is that they can’t pitch in the big leagues anymore. The reality is they’re the fringy guys that go up and down and their lives are very unstable, and there’s a lot of stability over with going over to Asia that doen’t exist for those players here,” Sadowski said.
“We call it the ‘DFA train.’ You get designated for assignment,” Sadowski explained…
“So one week you’re playing for the Giants, you get DFA’d, you get claimed and you’re pitching for the Brewers, you get DFA’d, you get claimed and your pitching for the Giants again. Maybe in between those you’re pitching against the Giants and the Brewers. The lifestyle, it’s just not ideal, and then you go to Japan or Korea where you can be a two-hole, or a number two starter, or a number one starter if you put it together like a guy like Josh Lindbom or Merryl Kelly has,” said Sadowski.
One of the people that helped Sadowski find his niche on the field in KBO was none other than Jerry Royster.
Two years earlier, Royster made KBO history by becoming the first foreign-born manager in the league’s history. With the help of another former MLB manager Bobby Valentine, Royster got the call from the Lotte Giants in Busan, South Korea to interview for their opening manager position.
“The owner asked Bobby Valentine if he knew anyone that was willing to come over to Korea and do the same thing he was doing in Japan,” Royster explained.
“The story goes that I was the first person that he thought about. So, he called my agent and asked if I was interested. I got on the phone with him. I had no idea what was going on there. I had no idea they had baseball in Korea.
“After going through the playing, and coaching, and managing in the minor leagues. After playing, and coaching, and managing in the major leagues. This was something more unique than all of that. Let me say going into it was like walking into the unknown, and it turned out to be the greatest experience of my life.”
Lessons learned pay off for Royster in the KBO
Lessons from his time in Milwaukee proved valuable for Royster as he adjusted to his next managerial job.
The KBO pioneer entered the league with a bang. In 2008, Royster led the Lotte Giants to the postseason, their first playoff appearance in seven years. The key, he says, was a change in mentality.
“They (Korean players) don’t have a lot of interaction with the manager. Everything is done through the coaches. Pretty much no interaction with the coaching staff as a whole. That was one of the first things I changed. I immediately was able to go to each player individually, and work with their individual needs,” said Jerry Royster.
“The players themselves, that was an easy adaption because they just wanted information. The single biggest reason was that I got the players on my side. I interacted with them. My door was open, which is a no-no in Korea.”
For Royster, his team was bigger to him than baseball.
“A lot of times it was about baseball, but a lot of times it wasn’t. It was about things in general. Just getting to know the players. Pointing out things they needed to work on. Listening to them tell me what they would like to do better. After watching them for a while I’d be able to teach them some of the western baseball, which they craved.”
It only took a year under Jerry Royster’s leadership for Sadowski to pick up on something that many others have expressed through the years…the quality of the man himself.
“Jerry is just an unbelievable person in general. The opportunity I got from Jerry, to play for him. You learn something from everybody you encounter in baseball, but learn the things in life I learned from Jerry just playing one year for him, a lot of it was learning how things were different and how to get through the tough days,” shared Sadowski.
“Playing for Jerry, on the field he’s a good baseball mind. I’ve had the pleasure of playing for Bruce Bochy, Jerry Royster, and Felipe Alou, just some legendary names and they all bring something to the table. Playing for Jerry in Korea, I think the biggest thing I learned from him is how to get through the tougher times off the field a little bit better.”
Sadowski helps new wave settle in
On the field, Sadowski pitched for the Lotte Giants for three seasons between 2010-12. During that time he posted winning records in his first two seasons and started 79 games – a drastic difference to his time in the MLB. And while fans knew those names for their successes on the field, for many within the league, including Royster, Sadowski stands out in KBO lore for more than baseball.
“What led to his success was the fact that he learned the language. He was in it for good,” Royster said.
“He wanted to make sure that he got to know the people. He interacted with the players. He was there with Karim Garcia, who was there all three years with me, but Ryan, he studied the language immediately.”
At the time, the KBO allowed each team only two foreign players on its roster. For Royster, that was Sadowski and Karim Garcia.
Royster continued, “He was already good enough to do what he was brought there for. He was our starting pitcher, Karim was our [outfielder], and we also brought in a couple of relievers as time went on. Ryan adapted to the country maybe better than I did,” said Royster.
Not only did Sadowski dive into Korean culture head-first, but he also began an orientation program to help incoming foreign players adjust to life, both personally and professionally, in Korea.
The program launched in 2015 and guided players like Josh Lindblum, Merrill Kelly, Brooks Raley, and Jim Adduci, all of whom went onto successful MLB careers following their time in the KBO.
And while the program was only able to last for a single season to avoid a conflict of interest with Sadowski taking a scouting position with Lotte the following year, its success is clearly evident.
Adjusting to life in a new country is a challenge for anyone that moves internationally, but playing baseball in the KBO is drastically different in one major way: you become an A-list celebrity the second your plane touches down.
Memories that stand the test of time
In South Korea, baseball players aren’t just members of the community, they are stars. Much has been documented about a player like Eric Thames, and his rockstar status on the Korean peninsula.
Both Royster and Sadowski had similar experiences of their own playing in the KBO.
“My highlight was finally making the playoffs. My first year over there, they hadn’t been in the playoffs in like ten years, and when we made the playoffs the entire country was behind us. The celebration was a first. They never celebrated making the playoffs, that wasn’t what you did,” Royster said.
“The only team that got to celebrate was the team that won the Korean Series. I introduced celebrating every victory, every time you accomplished something we celebrated.”
Sadowski also reminisced about a powerful moment in his career, saying his playoff win rivaled his first professional win in Milwaukee.
“My first year there, game two, I started a playoff game. I left the game with a 1-0 lead and we blew it. We gave up one run late. There was a series of walk-offs…and we homered in the tenth inning,” Sadowski reflected.
After a dominating Game 1 win, the Lotte Giants had just taken Game 2.
“We’re playing in Seoul Stadium. The stadium is split, fifty percent Lotte fans, and fifty percent Doosan fans…and I can just feel the whole place shaking. After that game walking out of the clubhouse, the fans are just so excited…
“It’s one of those days like Miller Park. Maybe even more memorable for me, because I had enough time to digest where I was rather than it was the first day,” said Sadowski.
Part of the team: Fans and the KBO
Right now plenty of baseball, and sports fans in general, are getting their first experience seeing the KBO. Being the first professional sports organization to return during the coronavirus pandemic has put the KBO front and center in the sports world.
The game is still the same on the surface. Balls and strikes, hits and walks are the same anywhere around the world. At the same time there’s one part of the game that is missing: fans.
In the KBO, the fans are a huge part of the game, from the songs to the chants. Right now it’s something the world is still missing.
“The one thing that I’m most disappointed in is the American people don’t get a chance to see the fans. The fans and the cheerleaders, I would love everyone to see it. Josh (Lindblom) can tell you it’s phenomenal. I think a lot of people would go to the games just for the crowds, and the songs, and the atmosphere as much as going to see the game itself,” said Royster.
“Probably the best city to understand this, of my knowledge of American sports, would be Green Bay, Wisconsin. Where everybody in the city takes pride in the Packers, people take pride in their baseball team,” Sadowski said.
“They want to be a part of it. Opening day is electric, the playoffs, it’s one of these things where everyone in the whole country when you have that playoff game, and the fans are a part of the team.”
Cultural Differences – starting with the bat flip
When it comes to celebrating, there’s one celebration that has become synonymous with the KBO: bat flips.
In the United States, the bat flip can be considered an insult. In the KBO it’s an art-form. A way for players to celebrate everything from a base hit to a grand slam.
“I thought it was kind of funny at first. It never really bothered me. I just kind of laughed at it, because the guys will just make hard contact and flip their bat. It wasn’t necessarily a home run.
“I’m like ‘hey man, you smoked that ball but you hit it right at the guy. Like the third baseman caught that ball now go pick up your bat.’ As time went along it just became one of those things, if he hits the ball hard he’s going to flip his bat,” Sadowski said with a laugh.
If anything, bat flipping is another example of cultural differences in baseball. In America that may be considered against the rules of the game and even rude. In South Korea flipping the bat is viewed more as a celebration.
“It’s a weird thought process in the states. The further away I get from the duggout in the states, the more I realize the bat flips and the way pitchers take it personally is an odd way of thinking compared to the rest of the world,” said Sadowski.
“In football when a guy catches the touchdown or runs in for a touchdown, you know the Lambeau Leap, he’s not doing that to insult the defender. He’s going to celebrate his success with the fans. In baseball…it is an insult to celebrate your success with the fans. The Korean guys don’t understand that when you say ‘oh you can’t do that in the states.”
Understanding the differences in culture can be key for any player making the jump to the KBO. Sadowski plays a big role in that process.
Now a scout for the KIA Tigers, Sadowski plays a big role in not only finding players to play in the KBO, but also helping them adjust to a new life in South Korea.
“You have to be willing to try new things. It’s not liking them, it’s understanding that they’re different. It’s not that their better or worse. We’ve seen the success that they’ve had so far in mitigating the virus, and a lot of that has to do with culture. At the same time, you can look at that culture and say that makes it harder to do other things.
“If someone were to come into work there eight years ago wearing a mask, that would not be uncommon. You would just assume they weren’t feeling well that day. That’s something you have to explain to guys,” said Sadowski.
It’s not always just about trying new things when moving across the globe. It’s learning to respect the differences in your new home.
“You have to be willing to accept certain things, and try different things, but you don’t have to like them. Respect is a big thing. You share that in Asian culture, respect your elders, but it’s just respect people in general,” said Sadowski.
“It’s a different mindset when you watch a KBO game. I’m not going to say it’s an American mindset, I’m going to say if you’re a Major League Baseball fan I would compare that to being a coffee drinker and going to Starbucks, where if you’re a Green Bay or Wisconsin fan you’re going to Kavarna. You don’t go into Kavarna and order a Frappuccino. You’re getting a different product. You may like Kavarna better than Starbucks, but it’s still a different product that you’re getting,” Sadowski explained.
“You’re still getting coffee. You’re still getting baseball. You’re getting a little bit more showmanship, the speed of the game is a little bit slower, you’re still seeing quality players, you’re still seeing home runs, guys that can hit the ball and make the throws, but it’s not going to be quite as fast.
“The overall talent is not going to be there. The business model is not quite as big, and what they’ve done in Korea to have a lot of success is to appeal to those fans that want to see that style of baseball. It’s the mindset that this may not be the brand of baseball that I’m typically used to watching, but I like watching this,”
While the MLB tries to find a way back on to the field, there’s one player with ties to Milwaukee currently playing in the KBO. Tyler Saladino signed with the Samsung Lions this offseason. Perhaps the next KBO success story, but this time in a new world trying to break out of a pandemic with a different style of baseball leading the way.