If you were awake for 2 a.m. today it’s probably because you stayed up too late — quarantine time is tricky like that — still thinking of it as Wednesday. But for Jon Sciambi, that’s when his Thursday started, four, maybe 4 ½ hours after he went to sleep. It was already mid-afternoon in Seoul, where the Doosan Bears were getting ready to host the NC Dinos in a game that the majority of Americans likely wouldn’t care much about except that it represents a commodity made all the more valuable lately by its scarcity: Live sports.
The Korea Baseball Organization has been playing games, in empty stadiums with face-masked non-player personnel, for about three weeks. In a world ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic that forced cancellations of nearly every concert, film festival, wedding and Little League game over the past few months, it’s a revelation. It’s also something for ESPN to air to an audience starved for sports content while Major League Baseball, the players association, and relevant health officials sort out whether or not there will be domestic baseball this summer.
Sciambi is among the ESPN announcers providing English-language broadcasts for six KBO games a week — aired with almost none of the resources they’re used to when it comes to calling a baseball game. He talked to Yahoo Sports about some of the biggest challenges he’s encountered providing play-by-play for games taking place halfway around the world.
Before all of this, how much did you know about Korean Baseball Organization?
Really limited. I had a rough idea that there are about a dozen teams; there are 10. I knew that guys went over there to play, like I knew Josh Lindblom had just come back from KBO. I had a vague idea of what the skillsets were of the league. I had done the [World Baseball Classic] in ‘06 and ‘09 and did the Far East bracket both times. Once remote and once from Tokyo and I had a bunch of the Korea games. I knew they had dudes that can hit. That I knew. And then I had a vague idea about the bat flipping and the fans and that it was sort of a rock concert.
What was your preparation for calling games like at the outset? How and what are you studying and what was ESPN telling you?
I would say maybe 10 or maybe eight days before the start of the season I got a call from my boss saying, “Hey, this KBO thing might happen” or “is probably going to happen.”
I had some people sending me a couple of sites and stuff like that. We had a couple people write some things, we wrote a preview and a power ranking. But yeah, it’s on us. It’s on us.
So alright, walk me through production prep for a game. How early are you waking up? Or are you staying up?
So I have a game tomorrow morning at 5:30 a.m. I will go to bed at 9:30 or 10 o’clock and I’ll wake up at 2. I’m doing stuff today already. I talked to my producer today. I’m going over Doosan [Bears]. One of the challenges is that they guard the lineups a bit. So we get the lineups 45 minutes before first pitch. In the major leagues you get them 2 ½ hours before the games. And in this instance it would be especially helpful to have them that far ahead just because of the names and the pronunciation.
My second game, 15 or 20 minutes to air they called to tell me my game was rained out and we were doing a different game. Thankfully it was the same two teams I had done the day before.
How much can you learn about individual players ahead of time? What is the best resource for being prepared?
The guy that runs the website MyKBO.net, Dan Kurtz, it’s a good website in terms of, it’s a combo of news slugs, stats and that stuff. Baseball-Reference has a KBO page. FanGraphs has done an in-depth look at the league. [Baseball] Prospectus has done some stuff. ESPN is doing a little. So you just take what you can get wherever.
My vision for it is we're playing the highlights, you know what I’m saying? So when I’m doing the NC Dinos we're gonna really emphasize Eui-ji Yang, who's the catcher, who's the lead player. You’re trying to emphasize, look here are a couple of the stars. Sung-Bum Na from the Dinos, another guy who’s a really good hitter, [Scott] Boras has signed him he may be posted at the end of the year. I’m not going to emphasize as much the eight spot hitter who I don’t have a ton of relevant things on.
We talk about the offensive context of the league. From 2014-18, the ball was really flying, in 2019 they de-juiced the ball. It appears this year that they have re-juiced the ball. But still, I’d go small sample size.
And then I would also say my thing is: Look man, I’m calling it off of a laptop. The resolution is low. Not controlling a single shot is super challenging — I don’t know the next thing I’m going to see on the screen. So a ball is outside, and then what are you showing me? I’m seeing the same thing as the folks at home.
So what communication do you or your producer have with anyone in Korea? How do you find out about rain delays or pitching changes or pinch hitters?
On the last part of it, the communication is zero. The commercial breaks are 75 seconds. I come back from the break and externally you are hearing, “Welcome back KBO on ESPN. Jon Sciambi along with Eduardo Perez. Dinos leading the Bears, 6-1.”
Internally, my brain is saying, “That pitcher looks different. Is that still 25 on his back or is that a 45? He’s gotta turn, I can’t see.” He starts to turn and I’m still talking and I’m looking at my roster sheet like, yeah it’s a different guy.
I had a game where a team hit back-to-back homers late in a blowout and it was back-to-back pinch-hit homers. A lot of the teams don’t even have numbers on the front so that makes it even more challenging. So if they don’t shoot the back side …
Sometimes they’ll graphically, off the bug in bottom, they’ll have the pitcher and the hitter but it’s small. There’s a lot going on so it’s not easy to catch, in a 9-0 game if LG’s on defense and there’s a fly ball to left and I’m assuming Hyun Soo Kim is there but they’ve taken him out? I probably don’t know it. No one is telling me.
What is the hardest part about not being physically in the same stadium as the game you’re calling?
I don’t think that’s the question. It’s all of it in the pot together being cooked up is what makes it so difficult. I mean, a league that I am learning seven days before the league starts, would be super hard. A league filled with players whose names are difficult to pronounce when you don’t get the lineups until 45 minutes before first pitch if I was physically there. That would be hard.
And then, if you made me do the Royals and the Rockies exactly this way and my partner wasn’t next to me and I didn’t know the next shot was coming and they just showed me the Royals dugout, that’d be hard!
Just all of it is difficult. It’s been really difficult. I don’t want it to be like I’m complaining. But like, all of that and then with the hours, it’s hard.
What are some things you’ve gotten better at since you’ve started?
I think the interaction between the broadcasters has gotten better. You’re not stepping on each other. That part is good. And then, if I have the names, I feel comfortable. When I have the lineup, as long as I know who it is, I feel pretty good.
The other thing that happens is from a technology standpoint. We're gonna have Josh Lindblom on because he's just played for Doosan, because he's gonna be able to tell some stories. But when we put him on it's a three shot. So I have to set my monitor up, it doesn't have to be straight up but it's got to kind of look like I'm looking in the camera — but what I'm really doing is looking at a field and the camera, like it is two different things.
And I think that's the way it has to be, I think we have to have guests.
And it’s an opportunity while people are available. It’s like a baseball variety show almost.
That’s exactly the way I see it being. I’m calling a game, the anchor is Doosan is playing NC, that’s what we’re doing. But there is a baseball variety show in there.
What’s something that’s totally surprised you about Korean baseball now that you’ve watched it more?
If you go: Japan, KBO, MLB, the KBO style is the style I like the best. Because they’re trying to hit the three-run homer more than Japan, less than the U.S., but there’s way more contact and balls in play.
Also this is going to sound like a weird answer but, I think this is cultural, when a Korean player is robbed of a hit by a defensive player, their reaction is to smile. Every time. As opposed to like, throwing their helmet down.
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