All phases of life have been shuttered over the last two months. Sports have nearly disappeared from our culture and been put into perspective, along with nearly everything else we do on a daily basis. However, sports will always be a getaway. A distraction. Pumping nostalgia and awe through our veins. It doesn’t matter how old you are, but sports have a way to bring us all back to feeling (or even acting) like a kid again.
This Sunday, May 17, will be momentous for American sports by ushering back live events. NASCAR drivers will speed into turn one at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina and Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matt Wolf will tee off at Seminole Golf Club in Florida.
The upcoming work week leads into Memorial Day, May 25, and the kickoff to summer. Summer unequivocally means baseball in America.
While baseball is not being played on U.S. soil at this time, Korea and Taiwan have given us a glimpse into the convergence of the “new normal” and our nation’s pastime.
Taiwan led the globe back to sports with an April 11 start to the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL). Then the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) opened on May 5 and ESPN secured limited broadcast rights to air games in the U.S.
The KBO has received a lot of attention from Americans as they follow former big leaguers and get a glimpse at prospects that could land in affiliated systems in the future.
There are a handful of players that have come through Altoona that are in the spotlight currently shining on the KBO.
Mel Rojas Jr.
Mel Rojas Jr. has played in Korea since 2017 with the KT Wiz and is still trying to reach the Majors after playing for the Curve from 2013-15. He’s shown off some impressive power, too, with 85 homers and an OPS over .900 in all three previous seasons. His 43 home runs in 2018 were tied for second in the KBO with fellow former Curve Jamie Romak.
Speaking of Jamie Romak, he played in Altoona during the 2008-09 seasons. Romak has played a month’s worth of games at the big-league level with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks and, like Rojas, has played in Korea since 2017. He played in Japan in 2016 and made a cameo at Triple-A in 2017 before a return to Southeast Asia. His power has been evident as well. He has walloped over 100 homers with a .925 career OPS in Korea for the SK Wyverns.
Nick Kingham is teamed up with Romak on the SK Wyverns this year. He got the ball on Opening Day and dazzled, much like he did in his MLB debut with the Pirates in 2018. The member of the 2013-14, ‘16 and ‘18 Curve went seven innings of three-run ball in his Korean debut despite a losing decision.
You won’t find Adrian Sampson’s name in any box scores yet, but you will with the Lotte Giants before long. Sampson is under a mandatory 14-day quarantine after he returned to the U.S. in late April due to his father’s health. Sampson pitched for the Curve in 2014 and has pitched in the Majors with the Mariners and Rangers.
In Taiwan, Yung-Chi Chen is playing his 10th season with the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions. Chen’s time in Altoona was very brief in 2010, which was his last before he returned to his native country.
I hope we as baseball fans have a new appreciation for professional baseball in Asian nations. Yes, Major League Baseball is the world’s biggest stage and Minor League Baseball is the most traditional way to get there. But Japan, Korea and Taiwan have an incredible product.
Here is a glance at how scouts view various leagues:
Remember, former Curve slugger Brad Eldred was a superstar during his seven seasons in Japan. These leagues, especially Japan and the KBO, also give players much more financial backing than they would if they were squandering in Triple-A year after year.
There’s no telling when baseball returns in our country but knowing and being able to see the game being played elsewhere is positive. In the meantime, we’ll be here waiting with open arms.
This contribution to the Around the Curve Blog is presented by Microtel. Plan your stay at one of Altoona’s three Lion Country Lodging locations. Click here to make a reservation today.