Thames embraced Korean culture, food and how game was played

Nationals first baseman Eric Thames did not play Major League Baseball from 2013 to 2016. In 2013, he worked his way through the minor leagues and played in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Then, from 2014 to 2016, he took a chance and accepted a contract to play in the Korea Baseball Organization for the NC Dinos. The move paid off. Thames rediscovered his game with the Dinos, crushing 124 homers with 382 RBIs in 390 games.

With the KBO games being televised for audiences in the United States, American fans now get a little bit of a taste of a new culture of baseball in Korea that Thames enjoyed for three seasons.

The Dinos play in Changwon, South Korea, and are owned by video game developer NCSOFT. The club finished second out of 10 teams in 2015 with Thames named the KBO Most Valuable Player. (The Dinos are in first place to begin this season.)

“Once you see the actual city, it’s kind of cool to see how other people live,” Thames said via a Zoom call last week. “You open your eyes. When you travel the world like that, it’s cool to be a part of (something) and realize the world is bigger than you are.”

During his tenure with the Dinos, they played at Masan Baseball Stadium. Thames said the atmosphere of KBO games is a big departure from what fans see in Major League Baseball.

“When we were hitting, there is always music, there is always noise going on,” Thames said. “A lot of their fans see our games in the states and they’ll say it’s boring. Here it is quiet during at-bats. Over there, like in Taiwan and Venezuela (and) the Dominican, there’s drums or trumpets or something going on. After a while, you get used to it. You get used to the energy. You are like, ‘Oh, this is awesome!’ “

The NC Dinos fans went crazy for Thames. When Thames at-bats were announced, fans would sing his cheer song.

“There’s always like a head cheerleader, a chant leader,” Thames said. “He would lead the fans saying, ‘Hey this person is hitting,” and they put on their song, start a chant and the cheerleaders (are) doing like their cheers and stuff. Enjoying how different the style of play is. In the U.S., it’s all homers and driving the ball, but over there, it’s like bunts and slapping and it’s more small ball. It’s more old style of baseball. It plays into their style. It’s cool to watch that.”

Thames Dugout High Fives Sidebar.jpgWith the possibility of MLB games this season being attended by no fans due to the coronavirus pandemic, Thames wonders if the league might add crowd noise or music to games to pump up the atmosphere for the players.

“I’m interested to see what MLB is going to do about (empty stadiums),” he said. “Is there going to be music playing low so it’s not as awkward? Hopefully, we will get to the point where it will be like the NBA and there will be music playing regardless.”

Thames dove right into Korean culture while with the NC Dinos. The fans loved his personality and ability to learn how to sing in Korean. Thames appeared on the Korean version of “The Masked Singer” as a character called “Hip-Hop Boy”.

Thames also said it wasn’t that hard to communicate, get around Changwon or find good food to eat.

“The foreign players stick with each other because obviously you can’t speak (the language fluently),” Thames said. “You have a routine where you get up, you have the hotel front desk write down a restaurant in Korean. Let’s say you Google a breakfast restaurant, like IHOP, you have them do it. You get three or four guys and you hop in a little taxi, go to the restaurant, hang out, eat pancakes. It’s kind of cool because you think you are going to have rice and fish for breakfast. There are some good restaurants there.”

Thames loves Korean barbecue. He made a point to go to those restaurants while in South Korea. Even today, he schedules special trips to go back so he can chow down.

“There is such good meat,” Thames said. “Over there, a lot of the restaurants are hole in the wall, family-owned and they are cheap. So you get like really good steak, two pounds of meat to grill up, for $10. And it’s so fresh. When I got back to the states from being there, my stomach was always messed up because of all the stuff in our food that they pump in there. But they were from the farm right to the restaurant. I’d eat Korean barbecue every night. It was so good - the steak, the pork. That’s why I go back every year. We land and crush for like four or five days and then get out.”

As for baseball, the game is a bit different on the field. Instead of 98-100 mph fastballs, Thames had to learn how to get around a lot off-speed stuff, usually out of the zone.

“They throw forkballs, splits, big curveballs,” Thames said. “They nibble. They try to get you to chase. I learned how to really zone in on the pitch I wanted to hit. It’s tough in the big leagues because those guys are the best in the world. Their secondary stuff is lights out. Their fastballs are electric, so you can’t expand. (Over there, they) throw soft away and give you nothing to hit. There are at-bats where you walk away and think I had nothing to hit that at-bat and struck out. That’s just the way the game is. But when they hang it, that’s how you get paid. You got to learn discipline.”

Another fascinating difference between MLB and KBO is the prevalence of bat flips after big hits.

“For me it’s cool to watch,” Thames said. “The pitchers, those are the guys that get all mad. You’ll see bats flying by them and it’s like ‘Whoa!’ That’s part of the baseball culture over there. You see the high school kids do it. You’ll see a home run and they throw the bat straight up in the air. It’s a flick and the bat just goes, same for Japanese baseball, Taiwanese. I have no problem with it. I think it’s cool. I think it’s entertaining. I’m all for it.”

Despite hitting over 120 homers in Korea, Thames said he was never good at flipping his bat.

“I tried so hard to do it,” Thames said. “I have a very low finish when I swing. So if I finish low, I can’t just throw the bat up. If it was a walk-off, oh, yeah, I definitely try to do that. I had a routine: Ten swings a day in the cage, where I’d hit the ball and try to bat flip and it never took over in the game. I’m so used to being a kid, just put the bat down and run. That’s how I was raised.”

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