South Korean professional baseball has its roots in the “Sangmyeong Habok” (上命下服). The current KBO (Korea Baseball Organization) league was founded in 1982 after the military government forced private companies to start a baseball team. It was different from the Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), which were created by combining teams and leagues that already existed out of necessity.
Backed by the power of the Blue House, the KBO governors and the league’s secretariat boasted enormous power in the early days of professional baseball. The first KBO commissioner, Seo Jong-cheol, was a powerful man who served former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo as an army general. Lee Woong-hee, who served as the third and fourth governors, also came from the power elite, having served as presidential spokesman and minister of culture and public affairs in the Fifth Republic. With the president’s closest confidant, the Blue House, coming down as a parachute governor, the chaebol chairmen had no choice but to follow suit.
‘Civilian’ governors also make top-down decisions
The “real” governors often met with Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee and other owners, ate meals, went to saunas and golf courses, and made decisions about the future of Korean baseball. It was up to the governors, secretary general, and owners to create the rules and systems that formed the backbone of the league. Contracts and disciplinary rules were also decided without the players’ consent. There were many times when ‘reforms’ were made that were completely different from the demands of baseball fans. Fans and players were always put on the back burner as the real owners of professional baseball.
Over the years, authoritarian governments and parachute governors have stepped down, and ‘democratic’ governors who are commentators have been appointed, but the unique ‘top-down’ decision-making behavior of professional baseball remains the same. The KBO’s recent announcement of the “KBO League-Team Korea Level Up Project” is a good example. On July 20, the KBO revealed a bag of trump cards, saying, “As the national baseball team’s power and performance in recent international tournaments have fallen short of the expectations of baseball fans, we have been preparing a long-term project to raise the level of league play and national team power and expand the base at the same time.”
The detailed plan is divided into four parts: improving national team management and the game system, developing prospects and leaders, and expanding baseball. Of these, the full-time national team manager system has been tried in the past, and holding various international exchange games is nothing new, as Heo has pledged several times since taking office. The programs to expand baseball’s baseball base, such as participation in the low-level player education league, dispatching players to the Australian League, leadership development programs, expanding t-ball classes, and prospect camps, are also issues that are hardly controversial.
The problem is the KBO’s proposed game reforms. The KBO has announced that it will introduce pitch clocks, extra innings, increased base sizes, and limited defensive shifts to first team games in the next one to two years. These are all rules that are currently in place in Major League Baseball, and here’s how they work.
Pitch clock – This rule requires pitchers to pitch within 15 seconds of receiving the ball with no runners on base and 20 seconds with runners in scoring position. If a pitch is not pitched within the time limit, it is an automatic ball. The batter must also enter the batter’s box and make eye contact with the pitcher before the timer reaches 8 seconds or an automatic strike is called. Pitchers can only leave the mound twice during a bases-loaded situation, once to step off the mound and once to throw out a runner. It was tested in the minor leagues until last year and has been implemented in major league games since this year. The KBO plans to implement the rule in the Futures League in 2024, followed by a trial run in first-team games.
Extra innings – This rule allows teams to play the 10th inning with a runner on second base if the game is tied after nine innings. It was first introduced in 2020 after a shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and operated on a temporary basis for three years before becoming an official rule this year. The Futures League piloted the rule last year and made it official this year, and it will be implemented in first-team games starting next year.
Increased Base Size – The base size for first, second, and third base has been increased from 15 inches (38.1 centimeters) to 18 inches (45.72 centimeters). This change, which is intended to prevent collisions between runners and fielders, will be implemented in the Futures League and first team games next season following a rule change later this year.
Limiting defensive shifts – A ban introduced by Major League Baseball this year. A minimum of four infielders must be inside the infield boundaries when playing defense, and at least two infielders must be fully positioned on either side of second base. If a fielder takes even the slightest step toward the opposite side of the second base, it’s a violation of the shift ban and an automatic ball is called.
Automatic Ball-Strike Scoring System (ABS), also known as robotic umpires, which use cameras and sensors at fixed locations to measure the position, speed, and angle of a pitched ball and then relay the results to the umpire to determine if it is a strike. If the pitch is a strike, a beep sounds through the batter’s earpiece. In the United States, it has been tested in the independent and minor leagues for several years, and in Korea, it has been applied in some games of the high school national baseball tournament (Mokdong Baseball Stadium) since this year. The major leagues are still working out the technical kinks. There is a possibility that the KBO, which is known for its distrust of umpire authority, will adopt the system before the major leagues.
“We’ve been worried about the length of games, which hasn’t decreased despite various attempts,” said a KBO official. “This year, Major League Baseball succeeded in reducing the average game time by nearly 30 minutes with the introduction of the pitch clock, and we expect a similar effect in our league.”
In fact, KBO games averaged an all-time high of 3 hours and 27 minutes in 2014 before dropping to 3 hours and 11 minutes in 2019, but have recently been increasing in length. After 3 hours and 16 minutes in 2021 and 3 hours and 15 minutes last year, the league is currently at 3 hours and 16 minutes this season (as of July 26). For Generation MZ, who enjoy short-form content and fast-forward through OTT dramas at double speed, a baseball game lasting more than three hours is a formidable barrier to entry.
“We were only informed after it was all decided”
The problem is that the players who are most affected were not consulted in the process. “We formed a task force and established a strategic direction through in-depth discussions with nine external experts from the KBO league field, media, overseas baseball experts, amateur baseball leaders, and academics,” the KBO said. When asked who the “field” was, the KBO official replied, “The managers who are former players. “During the 2023 WBC (World Baseball Classic), we held one-on-one meetings with the players to get their broad opinions on the league’s problems,” he said, “but we did not discuss specific system improvements such as pitch clocks.” A representative from the Korean Baseball Players Association (KPA) also said, “There was no discussion with us at all. We were only informed by a senior KBO official that ‘this is what they’re going to do’ after everything was decided.”
This was not the case in the U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB), where the system was reformed before Korea. In the U.S., players are consulted from the very beginning when making rules and improving the system. The MLB Competition Committee is composed of 11 members, including six team officials, four members of the players’ union, and one umpire. In September of last year, all four players’ union members voted against the introduction of pitch clocks and the 2023 implementation of defensive shift restrictions. At the time, Tony Clark, the union’s general secretary, said in a statement, “The player leaders who participated in these negotiations provided specific and actionable feedback on the rule changes proposed by the Commissioner’s Office. We are disappointed that the Major League Baseball office did not attempt to meaningfully address the concerns raised by the players.”
In the US, players are partners
The players’ union and the MLB office are continuing to communicate during the season to identify issues and improvements to the new system. Most recently, the players’ union has communicated a proposal to “eliminate pitch clocks in the postseason,” which is reportedly under serious consideration by the commissioner’s office.
In Major League Baseball, players are equal “partners” in the decision-making process. Hence the name CBA, or Collective Bargaining Agreement. The idea is that the rules are set through consultation between the members. In Korea, on the other hand, the equivalent of a CBA is called the Baseball Rules. It has a stronger nuance of centralized, top-down ‘regulation’ than agreement. In fact, it is called a ‘protocol’ because it is decided by the secretariat and the clubs themselves, excluding the players.
There is no shortage of concern and frustration among players who have been ‘informed’ of the introduction of pitch clocks. “Even in the United States, where pitch clocks have been relatively successful, there is still some debate,” said one agency representative, “especially among pitchers who are directly affected.” In the U.S., a rash of pitcher injuries and surgeries early in the season have led some to suspect a connection to Pitch Clock. Some have argued that pitch clocks disadvantage older pitchers by forcing them to keep pitching without a break.
Some argue that the pitch clock is not suitable for the KBO, where the pitching staff is weak and runners try to steal bases. “Even first-team pitchers have a hard time throwing strikes, and it’s even harder when they’re on a timer and under pressure. I’m worried that we’ll see a huge increase in strikeouts and a lot of big innings. If you introduce a pitch clock, you’re going to have to introduce a stealing rule, which will exponentially increase the number of stolen bases.” A KBO official explained, “We need to discuss whether to introduce a pitch clock and a pitchcom (a device for catchers and pitchers to exchange signs) together, like in the United States.”
The cost of the pitch clock equipment, which is over 100 million won per stadium, and the manpower to operate it are also issues that need to be addressed. According to the US sports media ‘The Athletic’, the pitch clock equipment is operated by manually resetting it every time, and there is a problem of human error, such as the timer running slightly faster or slower in different stadiums.바카라사이트
Regarding the improvement, a pitcher from a local team said, “The players are saying that we shouldn’t just ignore this. We must raise the issue,” he said. A player’s association official said, “We have asked the KBO several times to allow the players’ association to attend the executive committee meetings, but it has not been accepted. We have requested that the players’ association be allowed to attend the executive committee meeting in August,” he said, adding, “We will observe whether this request is accepted and then discuss follow-up measures.”