Under normal circumstances, Lippert, the United States’ ambassador to South Korea from 2014 to 2017, would have been there in person — as he has each previous Opening Day since he returned from overseas — rooting on his beloved Doosan Bears, the KBO champions in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
But the current circumstances, of course, are anything but normal — a point driven home vividly Tuesday morning as Lippert settled for watching Opening Day on ESPN and heard something he had never before encountered: a KBO game being called in English. He might have found the whole thing a bit incongruous if he wasn’t so ecstatic just to have baseball back — and if he wasn’t simultaneously following along and chatting with buddies, in Korean, on the app KakaoTalk.
With Major League Baseball shut down since mid-March by the novel coronavirus pandemic and with baseball fans and ESPN executives alike starved for live action to take its place, the KBO is having a moment on these shores — with the greater American baseball-watching community being let in on a secret held up to this point by only a small band of die-hards, expats and Korean Americans.
That secret is the sheer awesomeness of the KBO, with its raucous, chanting fans and its colorful, bat-flipping stars, each with his own cheer song. Though the fans, unfortunately, are absent so far in 2020 — the season, at least in its early stages, is taking place in empty stadiums — the players, including the 30 or so Americans in the league, are there on the screen in vivid color.
Lippert’s favorite player is Jae-won Oh, the 35-year-old second baseman and captain of the Bears, whom Lippert describes as: “Speedy, hustling, leave-it-on-the-field type of guy. … Really competitive. Kind of polarizing within the league. You either love him or hate him. The straw who stirs the drink.”
Rather than treating the KBO’s sudden popularity like a jilted indie-rock hipster whose favorite underground band has suddenly blown up into a stadium act, Lippert sees himself more as a revival-tent preacher whose congregation is finally seeing the light.
“I’ve been trying to pump up the KBO for years,” Lippert said. “But I was totally ineffective at it. … I think this is a huge opportunity for the KBO to get the attention it rightly deserves for being a high-caliber league that’s often overlooked by the casual fan.”
Lippert, now a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, is perfectly capable of getting all wonky as he describes baseball as a “great common denominator” between the American and Korean people.
“Ambassadors come and go. Administrations come and go,” he said. “But what stays is the people-to-people ties. And seeing that strengthened, along with the real-world implications for those of us who practice diplomacy, is so exciting for me. It’s a great thing both for the sport and for the alliance.”
But on a more visceral level, Lippert loves the KBO simply because, as he says, “[It’s] a gem of a league.”
Lippert, 47, grew up a Reds fan in Cincinnati, where his family had season tickets and where young Mark, 12 at the time, was one of 47,237 on hand at Riverfront Stadium to witness Pete Rose collect his 4,192nd hit and break Ty Cobb’s 57-year-old record in 1985.
He was nominated by President Barack Obama to the South Korean ambassadorship in 2014 and attended his first KBO game that fall, within days of arriving in Seoul. But it wasn’t until a year later that the Bears became his team.
In April 2015, the team invited Lippert to throw the ceremonial first pitch before a game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium. He already was a public figure of sorts in Seoul, largely because he had been attacked by a knife-wielding assailant just a month earlier, which left him with slash and stab wounds to his left arm and leg and the right side of his face, requiring 80 stitches. Lippert was widely praised in the Korean media for his calm and gracious handling of the attack and its aftermath.
In South Korea, the ceremonial first pitch is a bit more of a production. The team takes the field first, which means the pitcher has to wait patiently behind the mound. The catcher himself, in full gear, receives the pitch. The opposing leadoff hitter sometimes stands in the batter’s box. Oh, and you’re expected to deliver a short speech first.
“Nice to meet you, baseball fans,” Lippert said into the microphone in Korean. “I’m feeling good!”
The crowd erupted in cheers at that — and again when he delivered a strike. By the time the game was over, and Lippert was mobbed by autograph seekers, then invited to the clubhouse to meet the Doosan players, he was hooked.
“And this was before they started winning championships,” Lippert points out, lest anyone get the mistaken impression he is a bandwagon fan.
When Lippert’s ambassadorship ended in January 2017, by which point he had added a second title as honorary ambassador for the KBO, Oh was among the luminaries who attended his farewell ceremony in Seoul. But Lippert carried his love of the Bears and the KBO back to Washington. By that point, his family of two had doubled in number; his wife, Robyn, gave birth to a son, James William Sejun, and a daughter, Caroline Saehee, while they were in Seoul. Both Lippert children are still called by their Korean names.
Although Lippert began attending Washington Nationals games, walking to Nationals Park from his Capitol Hill home, he often did so in the jersey of a KBO team — sometimes causing a scene when Korean Americans would recognize him and ask for pictures. He also managed to make it back to Seoul for a dozen or so KBO games in both 2018 and 2019, and he streamed games online when he couldn’t be there.
Watching KBO games on ESPN from his American living room — without fans in the seats, without friends, without Korean announcers saying, “Dwilo, dwilo, dwilo!” (“Back, back, back!”) as they describe the trajectory of a long flyball — is about as far from the real thing as you can get.
But Lippert is determined to make it to some games in person in Seoul this year, once travel, stadiums and society in general open back up. He will settle into his seat, chimaek in hand, and he will root on the Bears and sing Oh’s cheer song at the top of his lungs — “Oh Jae-won! Hit the ball! Blow it away!” — just like old times.