Baseball fans in the U.S. have turned to the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) this week for entertainment with MLB’s 2020 season on hold as the country waits out the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Eric Thames turned to the KBO when things didn’t work out in his first few seasons in the majors in 2011-12.
Thames ended up crushing in the KBO during three seasons with the NC Dinos, between 2014-16, putting up a combined .349/.451/.721 line with 102 doubles and 124 homers over 390 games and 1,638 plate appearances.
What did he learn from his experience and success in the KBO that he brought back with him to MLB?
“I would say one thing I always tell people, which — I’ve had older people tell me when I was younger — but I was young and dumb and didn’t believe anybody, because you always think you can control what happens to you in life, and life never works like that,” Thames said in a Zoom call with reporters from his home in Las Vegas this afternoon.
“I thought I was going to have like a 15-year career in the big leagues, All-Star every year, play every day, and it just — it didn’t work like that, so I was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’
“‘Am I going to be getting a real job next year? Like, who knows?’ This is in like 2013-14.
“And then obviously, Korea came knocking and I was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to stay here. I don’t know what that part of the world is,’ like, ‘No. No.’ And it just shows the ignorance.
“And all of a sudden I went over there, and I was like, ‘It’s not too bad,’ and then like after a month or two months, I’m like, ‘This is a really fun.’ You start getting to know people, and it’s like, when you’re out of your comfort zone, you’re uncomfortable, and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Man, this is actually really cool.’ And then that’s how you grow as a person. You kind of learn what life’s really about.
“Life is definitely not linear, things happen for a reason. Things happen that are going to make you a better person in the long run. The way my life turned out, especially being with Milwaukee and now being with the Nationals, I had no idea I’d be here, but I’m so happy I’m here, and I’m happy with the person I became.”
Thames signed a 1-year/$4M deal with the Nationals coming off a .247/.346/.505, 23 double, 25 home run, 1.9 fWAR season with the Brewers in 2019, but after a few weeks in West Palm Beach, FL with his new club, MLB shut Spring Training down and postponed the start of the 2020 campaign, so the 33-year-old first baseman has been back in Las Vegas for a while as he and the rest of the players in the majors wait for word on a start date for the season.
Over in Korea, the KBO teams are playing in empty stadiums as the major league clubs will likely have to once baseball starts up again in the U.S., and Thames said there are things to learn from how Korean teams are handling the start of their own 2020 season.
“When you’re hitting [in the KBO] there is always music, there is always noise going on,” he said of what it was like when there were fans in the stands in Korea.
“You’ll hear a lot of fans see our games in the States, and they’ll say it’s boring, cause it’s quiet during at bats.
“Unless a hitter is walking up, there’s a big hit, it’s like silence. Over there it’s just constant, it’s the same in Taiwan, Venezuela, the Dominican [Republic] — there are always drums, trumpets, there’s always something going on, and after a while you get used to it, and you kind of get used to the energy, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’”
And what can MLB take from what he’s seen of the early KBO games this year?
“Hopefully MLB, when we start playing, fans, fan energy, watching some of the games on TV recently, and I see some of the stadiums have crowd noise,” Thames said, “... and they have some stuff so it’s not silent, so I want to see what MLB is going to do about — is there going to be music playing low so it’s not as awkward. I do miss it, I do miss the fan energy, but hopefully we get to the point where it’s like NBA, where there will be some stuff, music playing, regardless.”
Has seeing baseball in Korea given him more optimism that there will be an MLB season at some point this year?
“I’m very, very optimistic,” Thames said.
“I’m checking the news every morning and just seeing more and more stuff is opening up gradually, and that’s optimistic for me.
“Once you start getting more people getting outside — it’s okay, you need to keep the numbers down in terms of cases and all that, but all of us are ready, all the players, and we all know it’s going to happen eventually. Like at first we were all terrified that the whole year is going to be canceled. And so, for us to see these people on TV, they’re making it work with no fans.’
“As long as we play, and start letting fans in D.C. [watch] Nationals games, whether it’s in Florida, or it’s in D.C., or in Arizona or whatever they do, or the dome thing.
“As long as we play, that’s all that matters, because America needs to see baseball. We need to like, entertain. People are at home, watching these movies, they’ve seen the same movie for months. We need to start getting back to work and showing some homers.”