When former White Sox infielder Tyler Saladino signed up to play baseball in South Korea back in January, nothing could have prepared him for this.
While Major League Baseball was holding spring training in Arizona and Florida, Saladino was living on the other side of the globe, under everybody’s radar, just trying to keep his baseball career alive in East Asia.
Out of sight, out of mind. That was Saladino.
As one of the few Americans playing in the Korea Baseball Organization that began its season this week after a five-week delay due to the coronavirus, Saladino is not just playing baseball. He finds himself doing something far greater than that.
He’s helping to heal our baseball souls.
“Taking the field (on Opening Day), knowing that everybody back home was watching it, I almost teared up a little bit on the field,” Saladino said in an interview on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “Listening to the Korean national anthem, I was fighting a lot of emotions at that time.”
Saladino, who was drafted by the White Sox in 2010 and played for them from 2015 to 2018, has become our window into a baseball world we can only dream of right now. ESPN is televising KBO games while they’re being played in South Korea, where the pandemic is much more under control.
Last week, South Korean officials reported zero new domestic coronavirus cases for the first time in two months.
“They’re equipped for (the pandemic),” Saladino explained. “Their testing was available immediately. Facilities were put up immediately. There was nothing to worry about for all the front-line workers and medical staff. They were all suited up from head to toe. 'Come and get tested.' They were able to do all those kind of things. That’s the biggest challenge back home.”
On game days, Saladino says that when players arrive at the field, they are all given temperature checks. Games are played in stadiums without fans. Coaches and training staff wear masks. But once the game starts, it’s baseball, or something as close to it as possible.
“The best way to put it, it’s truly surreal,” Saladino said. “Comparative to the first time setting foot on a major league field in Chicago against the Cubs and looking around and having that surreal moment. It’s obviously not the same atmosphere, but given the circumstances, it is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to something that’s truly surreal.”
With ESPN broadcasting the Lions' first game, they handed Saladino a microphone and asked him to deliver a message into the camera to everyone watching in the United States. Knowing the situation back home, he realized the gravity of the moment.
“I wanted to just Stretch Armstrong through the camera and just hug everybody. That’s all I really wanted to do. I didn’t even have words,” Saladino said. “As thankful as I am for this situation, I feel a ton of pressure. I mean, there’s only a few of us (Americans) out here, so we’re representing in a big way.”
Playing shortstop and batting third, Saladino got the first hit of the season for the Samsung Lions, who are based in Daegu, 150 miles southeast of Seoul and 6,000 miles from the United States, where everybody is asking the same question:
When will Major League Baseball begin?
“That’s the hardest question ever,” Saladino said. “I’m not a scientist, I’m not in charge of running the country. The biggest difference is out here it’s one country with a fraction of the amount of people that we have back home. They all have the same approach. If something comes up, everyone goes inside. No one thinks about leaving. They just stay inside, order their food, cook at home. They just shut down and attack it head on.”
Speaking with friends back home, Saladino feels the sense of loss we’re all feeling. There’s a hole in our lives without baseball.
“I wish we could just snap our fingers and everything is back to normal, but unfortunately that’s not the reality.”
So we do what we can to fill the void. For now, that’s watching the game being played in South Korea, where there's a familiar face on the field who understands what we’re going through.
“I just want to represent well. Just to do whatever I can to help people out through baseball. I hope it turns around back home sooner or later and get it going again.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.