Baseball fans were just happy to have some form of the game back this week, so it was easy to overlook the empty seats as the Korean Baseball Organization kicked off Monday night. But when Mac Williamson tunes in this week to catch a glimpse of his 2019 Samsung Lions teammates, that's the first thing that'll catch his eye.
The former Giants outfielder ended last season in South Korea, hitting .273 with four homers in 40 games for the Lions. He learned how to quickly calculate how fast a pitch was when it would pop up as 145 kilometers per hour. He learned a new cuisine, new culture and got accustomed to a different power structure in the dugout, one based entirely on seniority. More than anything, he learned how important the fans are to KBO games.
During a phone conversation Tuesday from his North Carolina home, Williamson explained what Giants fans should know about the KBO games they're watching.
"The fan experience in those games is really what sets it apart, and it's hard to duplicate that now because they don't have fans," he said. "They have a head cheerleader who makes up a cheer for each player. Every player has his own chant and song, so when you're hitting they are chanting that song and dancing the entire time you're hitting. It doesn't stop. They're chanting the entire time. Any time you do something good they're chanting that song.
"That's one of the biggest things that's different, in a good way, in their game, but it's not coming through obviously because they're not allowed to have fans. It's pretty cool when you have a packed stadium and they're all chanting in unison. I came back to spring training and it was a little weird when you're hitting and it's dead quiet."
Williamson was in camp with the Washington Nationals this spring, preparing to head to Triple-A in Fresno, ironically, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shut the sport down. Like most affiliated with MLB, he planned to tune into a KBO broadcast on ESPN this week, just with much more personal ties.
Williamson was excited to watch former teammate Ben Lively, who started for the Lions in their second game. Williamson and Lively were two of the three foreign players on the Lions late last season, along with Darin Ruf, who also returned to the U.S. this spring and was making a strong push for a spot on the Giants roster. Each KBO team is allowed three foreign players, but only two can play in any one game.
The rest of the league is made up of the best South Korea has to offer, and there were some who really impressed Williamson, though he felt, in general, the league was comparable to Triple-A in terms of talent level and competitiveness.
"There are definitely some talented guys there that can play in the big leagues," he said. "The biggest difference for me was a lot more of the pitchers in Korea have splitters than in the United States. I struggled with that, so that was the biggest adjustment from a gameplay standpoint. Their arsenal was just different in that way."
Williamson still managed to put up solid numbers in his stint there, although it was perhaps not the best season for an American slugger to land in the KBO. The league changed its baseballs before the season, essentially de-juicing them, and offensive numbers cratered. Ruf, for instance, hit 31 and 33 homers in his first two years there, but just 22 in 2019.
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"I was laying into some balls that weren't even going to the warning track," Williamson said.
That wasn't the only adjustment between the lines. Williamson recalled looking up after one early pitch and seeing 138 on the scoreboard.
"I was really thrown off at first, it was weird," he said. "They were like, 'That's 86 (mph).'"
Williamson quickly adjusted and started doing the math in his head, but there were other aspects of playing overseas that would have taken more than a few months in Daegu, a large city in the southeast portion of the country, to get used to.
For instance, In the fifth inning, the normal between-innings break was extended so the field could be taken care of. Williamson would watch as bench players, coaches and even umpires would retreat to a back room for a smoke break as the infield was dragged.
The Lions put Williamson up in a three-bedroom apartment with all expenses paid but utilities, and he got a generous meal allowance. But it wasn't always easy for the 6-foot-4 outfielder to find three square meals a day. MLB players are accustomed to grabbing some food early in the afternoon when they get to the park and crushing the spread after a game, but the Lions served just one meal a day right after batting practice, generally consisting of rice, pasta or some sort of fried or breaded chicken.
Williamson said he was grateful Ruf was there to suggest all the best places to find more Americanized food on the road, and a team translator would often help the foreign-born players order takeout through an app. After home games, it was a little easier to cook up a familiar meal at his apartment.
"They did have a Costco there," Williamson said, "Which was awesome."