How KBO insider Daniel Kim helped bring normalcy back to baseball fans

SEOUL — One day in the spring of 2020, shortly before the Korea Baseball Organization emerged as a focal point of a pandemic-impacted sports world, Seoul resident Daniel Kim received a direct message on Twitter. It was from Karl Ravech and Boog Sciambi, two ESPN broadcasters who introduced themselves — Kim, a KBO analyst and former South Korea scout for major-league teams, had met Sciambi but not Ravech — and explained they were looking for someone to assist with a novel undertaking. What they proposed sounded intriguing, ambitious and filled with unknowns. Still, Kim readily agreed to help.

“Plus,” Kim said recently, “I had nothing else to do. I was just like everybody else.”

About a week later, Kim found himself on American national television, having gone from watching Netflix on his couch to remotely joining ESPN’s broadcast of Opening Day in the KBO. For Kim, it was a couple of innings of baseball talk on an unexpected platform. For Ravech, calling play-by-play from his home in Avon, Conn., and ESPN analyst Eduardo Perez, providing color commentary from his garage in Miami, it was an enterprising first step in bringing a semblance of normalcy to live sports viewers around the globe.

Kim proved a hit with the Worldwide Leader. Over the next several months, as ESPN televised six KBO games per week, Kim logged close to 90 appearances alongside a rotating crew that included Ravech, Perez, Sciambi, Jessica Mendoza and Kyle Peterson. Amid their long-distance immersion into the culture and customs of Korean baseball, Kim’s new colleagues described him as both a frequent guest and a dependable tour guide.

“Whether he was the guy that we were talking to directly or he was the one steering us in the direction of other people, he was absolutely integral to all of it,” Ravech said. “He was, no question, the most familiar face, and in a lot of ways people are looking for credibility. He was the one who provided it.”

“Daniel was probably the all-around MVP of the KBO coverage,” said Phil Orlins, ESPN’s vice president of production.

Wednesday night in Seoul (6 a.m. Eastern Time Wednesday in the United States), the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres will open the 2024 season with the first of two games at Gocheok Sky Dome. Major League Baseball is finally playing its first regular-season contests in South Korea because growing the sport internationally has become a renewed focus in recent years; because Shohei Ohtani and Ha-Seong Kim have redefined the possibilities for Asian ballplayers; because Padres advisor and former Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park three decades ago became the first Korean-born player in the big leagues; and perhaps also because, just four years ago, a cross-Pacific bond sprouted out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Who knew when we started at ESPN that it would take us to Seoul, South Korea?” said Ravech, who will team with Perez, his Sunday Night Baseball partner, to call the Dodgers-Padres series on site. “I think part of that is the connection that we had to the KBO.”

That bridge was built on the strength of modern technology and with the considerable help of Kim, who will reunite with Ravech and Perez as ESPN’s sideline reporter for the series. For Ravech and Perez, the games at Gocheok Sky Dome will be a long-awaited opportunity to experience live, fan-attended baseball on Korean soil. For Kim, it will be the culmination of an unlikely journey that spans two continents and 13 time zones.

“I’m so happy for Major League Baseball fans in Korea that are going to get to watch regular-season Major League Baseball games in person for the first time,” Kim said. “It’s been a long wait, and it looks like everything is coming together with Ha-Seong and Woo-Suk Go and Shohei Ohtani. In the end, I think it was worth the wait.”

Born in Seoul and raised in New York City’s Flushing neighborhood, Kim grew up a New York Mets fan. His passion, career and heritage intersected in the late 1990s when the Mets hired him away from a local marketing agency to work in their own marketing department. “I remember my first day driving into Shea Stadium as a Mets employee, and that was like the best feeling ever,” said Kim, whose duties included coordinating ticket sales to Korean Americans ahead of annual visits from Park and the Dodgers.

His horizons eventually expanded beyond the confines of a single ballpark. In 2003, Korean-born pitcher Jae Seo unexpectedly made the Mets’ starting rotation out of spring training, and Kim — who had once been enlisted to give Seo and his family a tour of New York City — was appointed as the right-hander’s emergency interpreter. The new role stuck. Kim left behind his marketing job and traveled with Seo and the team for a couple of seasons. He made the kind of connections that would draw him back to baseball even after he changed careers and continents.

daniel kim eduardo perez

Daniel Kim, right, with broadcast partner Eduardo Perez. (Courtesy of Daniel Kim)

In 2010, after a few years of working in the import-export business, he moved back to Seoul. There, Kim landed a part-time scouting job with the Cincinnati Reds. He landed another a season later with the then-Cleveland Indians. It was a time of renewed interest in Korean baseball; following a barren period for Korean players attempting to succeed in the U.S., the KBO’s Hanwha Eagles would soon post superstar pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu for major-league clubs.

It also would become the impetus, in 2013, for another life change. Finding the scouting business isolating, Kim pivoted to a more social activity: analyzing baseball on Korean television stations. Ryu’s immediate success with the Dodgers, Park’s former team, supplied plenty of fodder. Kim’s résumé made him a valuable commodity.

“When Hyun Jin Ryu started pitching well with the Dodgers, it just reignited the whole interest in Major League Baseball,” Kim said. “And all of a sudden, they needed somebody on TV to talk about the Dodgers and the major leagues, and having all that experience with major-league teams … there was a certain need for that, and I was at the right place at the right time.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered live sports and in-studio work in March 2020, ESPN formed a committee that came up with a makeshift solution. MLB was shut down, but the early introduction of a mass-testing system helped the Korea Baseball Organization believe it could push for a full 144-game season. That May 5, Ravech and Perez called the KBO’s season opener using newly installed at-home studios and a remote-commentary system ESPN personnel referred to as “Live From Home” kits. Ravech’s kit came with a memorable description: LFH 001.

“It’s a ground zero for Live From Home kits, and I still have it,” Ravech said. “I think it’s something I’ll never forget, and that number represents a time from our lives that we’ll never forget.”

For Kim, the previous year had been one of the busiest and most fulfilling in his broadcasting career: Ryu started the 2019 All-Star Game, finished second in National League Cy Young Award voting and signed the largest contract for a pitcher in Toronto history. Kim followed Ryu around the country while working for a leading Korean television station, and his personal YouTube channel was taking off. He was planning to spend the upcoming season documenting Ryu’s exploits with the Blue Jays.

That was before spring training and other live sports went dark. Kim decamped from Toronto’s spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla., to nearby Sarasota, where he stayed with his sister and her family. About a week later, with hospitalizations and death tolls climbing around the world, Kim returned to Seoul. There initially was no telling when he would get back to work. Then, in late March, ESPN reached out; Perez and Kim had spent time around each other in spring training before much of society shut down.

In some ways, the resulting product was a forerunner to the alternative live sports telecasts seen today. And while Ravech and his colleagues learned the KBO while calling games before the crack of dawn, their resident Seoul native emerged as an authentic connection to an overseas baseball league. Kim, Orlins said, arranged for numerous guests in South Korea to come on the broadcasts. (One day, he and a tour guide spent an entire game showing viewers various landmarks around Seoul via FaceTime.) He helped with access to KBO teams and their talent.

“You could say that that led to the live player interviews we do now on Sunday Night Baseball,” Orlins said. When ESPN secured the rights to broadcast this week’s so-called Seoul Series, the network quickly reached out to Kim. “But let me be explicitly clear,” Orlins added. “Daniel is on the coverage because he delivers on the air. Smart, informative, witty, with a precise delivery.”

Kim says he might enjoy talking about baseball even more than he loves watching it. Working in ESPN in 2020, then, represented a career highlight, even as the circumstances tempered his excitement. Still, the KBO managed to finish a full 2020 season without a single player testing positive, and the NC Dinos were eventually crowned champions in November. Kim found satisfaction in emails he received from people around the sport, in the unlikely connections that sprang out of an unlikely assignment.

“I was getting a lot of DMs back then all telling me that ‘KBO saved me. We had nothing else to watch,’” Kim said. “It was a scary time back then. You know, people were getting sick. … But I think the KBO kind of gave the fans, baseball fans at least, an opportunity to kind of feel normal again.”

Four years later, baseball in Korea is back to normal. TV ratings and ticket sales are up, Kim said. The KBO’s unique pageantry is again on display, including in the exhibition games the Dodgers and Padres just concluded against Korean teams at Gocheok Sky Dome.

Along with the first-ever, major-league regular-season games played on Korean soil, this week has brought another first: the first in-person meeting between Kim and Ravech, who worked dozens of games together in 2020.

“On a personal level, I cannot describe in words how excited I am,” Kim said. “I feel like my longtime friends are visiting me in Korea for the first time.”

“In a way, it feels like we’re going home even though we’ve never been there,” Ravech said last week. “That’s a tribute to the people there and Daniel, for sure.”

(Top photo of Eduardo Perez and Daniel Kim / Courtesy of Daniel Kim)

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