Korean Baseball, The Coronavirus, And A Battle For Sanity: A Look Back


The list of heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic is long and worthy. From nurses to grocery store clerks, ambulance drivers to Amazon drivers, so many people put their lives very literally on the line to keep America safe and operational, especially during the worst of times.

Ah yes, let’s channel Mr. Dickens, except without the “best of times” part. It was just the worst of times. And wow, it hasn’t even been a year but it feels like 20 since the Utah Jazz team doctor came running onto the court in Oklahoma City to report that Rudy Gobert had tested positive, which was the first domino that would, in short order, grind the country to a halt. In fact, a fantastic 30 for 30 podcast dives into that day — March 11 — and it’s incredible to listen to. Within the span of about 12 hours, the coronavirus went from a “big” story to the “only” story. The NBA halted the season, Tom Hanks tested positive, President Donald Trump banned travel from Europe. 

Life, as we knew it, was about to change dramatically.

And if you told me one of my heroes was going to end up being some dude up in Newfoundland, Canada who helped me realize that you have to jam in Jin-Sung Kang, the catcher for the NC Dinos, when he’s facing a lefty even if he costs $5K, well, you could’ve knocked me over with a forkful of kimchi.

For the love of the game

“I started reading up on teams, trying to find points of comparison, who were the Yankees, that sort of thing. That’s where I started,” said Freddie Mills, a high school athletic director from Newfoundland. “From there, I followed their spring training, got an idea of who the homegrown domestic guys were, and started reading local beat writers. And obviously when the season started I was totally invested in it, watched the games, and I came across a website that streamed all the games. Most mornings I’d start my day with a game on TV, and a few more on the computer, learning the players and teams, and most importantly, scratching my itch.”

Mills describes himself as a lifelong sports fan, and when the coronavirus hit, he found himself in the same position sports fans the world over found themselves in: There were no sports.

But in South Korea, the coronavirus outbreak was different. Swift government action and a complete buy-in by the public kept cases low. Low enough, in fact, for the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), a 10-team league made up of homegrown talent and a handful of ex-Major Leaguers, to begin their season on May 5.

For a segment of sports fans like Mills, this was great news.

And for a segment of anxiety-ridden Chicken Littles, it went beyond great news. While calling it “life saving” would be a terrible exaggeration, it was certainly soul-saving.

No DFS, no peace

A bit about me, dear reader: I was born with congenital neurosis. Anxiety is my co-pilot. My fuel is fear. I’m a swell guy otherwise, but sheesh oh man, I can be difficult when the devil weasels into my thoughts. As one might imagine, the pandemic quickly became my Waterloo. I tried to keep it together in front of my wife and kids — for obvious reasons the only people I saw for months — but filling the day without breaking into a cold sweat was proving difficult.

Compounding the issue? I’m going to sound insane to many of you, but compounding the issue was the lack of daily fantasy sports. I am an avid, bordering on addicted, player of the game. NFL, NBA, and MLB are my bread and butter, but I’m also in those MMA and PGA streets. Soccer sometimes. NHL during the NBA all-star break. Oh yeah, some NASCAR also. Bottom line? I spend a few hours a day thinking about DFS. It is a hobby, and one that — somewhat to my surprise — helped me shape my pre-pandemic days. Having it taken away proved to be problematic. I had nowhere to put my energy. So instead, I scrubbed groceries with bleach spray and doom scrolled through Twitter.

I tried playing League of Legends DFS, but it proved to be “meh” for two reasons: 1) the optimal strategy was too easy to figure out (not that I won regularly) and 2) I had no idea what the hell was happening. To this day, if you offered me a million dollars to tell you what a “jungler” is, I’d still be a million dollars short of being a millionaire.

But when the KBO was brought to my attention … and DraftKings (and later FanDuel) was offering contests … well, I was back in action. Itch, scratched. Sure, I had to set my alarm for 5 a.m. to make sure my lineups were good, but for the first time since the lockdown started, I felt normal.

If you write it, they will come

“I certainly agree,” Mills said. “It felt normal. That was a big aspect of it. Just an investment in something. I guess so much was taken from our own individual lives — leisure activities, I play a lot of sports and all those leagues were shut down, even to be able to go socialize with friends, everything was shut down. It created a big void, and honestly it was very hard, very isolating. I’m lucky enough to have a significant other, but it’s nice to have your own individual passions too, and for me it’s always been sports. And when that was taken from me for the first time in 30-plus years, it was tough.”

So Mills invested his time in learning all he could about the KBO. I found him on Twitter one day after searching “KBO DFS.” I came across his breakdown of the upcoming slate of games. It was … in-depth.  

“I never did it before, I just decided to do it one day, and it just got more detailed as I went along,” he said. “I’d spend a couple of hours a day, writing the articles, previewing the games. Looking back it was pretty crazy. I guess I have an understanding wife.”

Mills doesn’t normally play DFS, but he will bet on games, and his previews started out concentrating solely on the sports betting angles. But as more people like me reached out, he started breaking things down from a DFS perspective. 

“I was just trying to help as many people as I could,” he said. “That’s what it was all about for me.”

And the amount of people who ended up reading these KBO previews? Well, let’s bring back that knock-me-over-with-a-forkful-of-kimchi thing.

“I’m a low key person, I don’t like attention, and really, I was doing this in the beginning for myself to pass the time, but as it went along, it got bigger,” Mills said. “I don’t have a strong social media presence, but I was gaining a lot of Twitter followers. I was just writing in a Google doc, making it accessible to anyone, and after a while I figured out I could see unique views. It shocked me. At its height, about 3,000 people were looking at it each day. Pretty cool, but mind-blowing.”

Weird to look back

Of course, Mills wasn’t the only person working on KBO content. Just ask my corporate brethren over on the RotoGrinders side of the building.

“On the mental side, I had a very similar experience to you, where you do something pretty much every day for how many years and then it disappears completely,” said Dave Potts, an MLB analyst for RotoGrinders. “I spent about a month twiddling my thumbs, going kind of crazy. And in addition to DFS shutting down, all the work I did on season-long leagues, months of drafts, all wiped away. Definitely a mess on my psyche for sure.”

Potts also dabbled in League of Legends — “Just to have something to do, I didn’t even care if I was good at it” — and then when KBO came around, he was tasked with pulling together content, and … 

“I was stunned by how much I loved it,” Potts said. “It was a new puzzle to solve, not just a time filler. I loved it. It reminded me of the early days of DFS, when you had to figure things out on your own, there was no content, no projections. I forgot how much I liked that. It was just looking at the data and then waking up in the middle of the night to see if I was right. Waking up at 3 a.m. became my routine, and I felt fantastic.”

Just like me, Potts welcomed this return to something resembling pre-pandemic life.

“Yeah, we needed that normalcy, even if it was a strange normalcy,” he said. “But it’s weird to be thinking about it now. It seems like it was a whole other world. But I’m so glad we had it.”

Will Priester, another prolific RotoGrinders contributor, was not on the KBO content team, but it didn’t stop him from waking up at 3 a.m. to hang out in the Discord to discuss that day’s slate of games.

“I loved it,” Priester said. “It was keeping me up on my baseball game, keeping my mind fresh. But yeah, it’s crazy to think how many of us would wake up at two, three, four in the morning to make sure everything was right. It was an interesting experience.”

If you can help one person a day …

“It is cool to hear someone like yourself got some joy out of it, or that it helped in some small way to pass the day,” Mills said. “Some people have said the same sort of thing, that it helped them, mentally, and that’s far beyond anything I set out to do. But as it went on, and more people reached out, I got joy from writing it knowing it would help people. Of course, sometimes it didn’t work out — sports are unpredictable — but just knowing people were looking forward to the articles every day, it was cool to me. So that’s what I’ll take from the whole experience, the amount of people it helped in some small way. If you can help one person a day, that’s a pretty good day I think.”

For the record, Mills on the phone came across exactly as kind as his words on the page. He was truly gobsmacked as he realized there were people like me out there, people who couldn’t name one KBO player, people who were going stir-crazy and coronavirus crazy, people who needed a release valve, people who came to depend on a soft-spoken Canadaian to help them regain some semblance of balance.

I’ll admit, even to myself, this all seems like a stretch, how some dude in the far reaches of Canada and some baseball league halfway around the globe helped keep me — and, apparently, countless others — sane during the height of the pandemic. But these things happened. I was there. 

I was there at 5 a.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. 

And I was there at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., depending on what time was first pitch, on Saturdays and Sundays. 

Mondays were an off-day for the KBO. The extra sleep was not a respite, I’ll tell you that.

Photo by Shutterstock.com


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