Former Orioles pitcher and U.Va. grad talks life in Korean baseball league during coronavirus

Tyler Wilson’s smile bursts through the computer on a Zoom call.

The former University of Virginia and Baltimore Orioles pitcher has found joy in baseball again playing in South Korea.

The professional baseball league in South Korea, the KBO, started its season May 5 after a delay of just over a month while the country dealt with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wilson is in his third year with a team in Seoul called the LG Twins, and almost 20 games are in the books with no fans in the stands.

“I really miss the fans because they are a large part of why this league is so special and why I enjoy it so much. Fans here are so passionate and engaged that it creates almost a playoff atmosphere every day of the week,” said Wilson.

“But this is what needs to happen. They are pumping the player’s songs and the cheerleaders are dancing so there is some background noise. Right now, we just go out there and play and it is almost like going back to sandlot ball when it was just me against the hitter.”

There are no crowds to make noise at baseball games in South Korea, but the KBO is receiving worldwide attention.

Leagues around the world, including Major League Baseball here, are trying to come up with plans for a return to play.

They are all closely following what the KBO is doing and how it can deliver competition and entertainment in a safe environment.

When Wilson and the other players arrive at the ballpark, their temperatures are immediately taken and they are monitored for any symptoms of the coronavirus.

Any player that reports a symptom is sent home and tested.

Players do not have to wear masks in the dugout or while playing, but it is encouraged away from the stadium.

If one player tests positive for coronavirus, the KBO’s plan calls for the league to be shut down for three weeks.

The threat of COVID-19 still exists in South Korea, but the number of infections and hospitalizations have been reduced to a point where much of life there has, from what Wilson has noticed, returned to normal.

Large gatherings such as attending baseball games are still not allowed, but from shopping to restaurants, Wilson is finding life like it was in his first two years in South Korea.

“It gives me optimism for what’s back in the states,” said Wilson.

“When I was back home for 10 days, I was inside and we didn’t do anything. As I follow it from abroad now, I’m concerned for my family and want to make sure everything’s OK in my home country. It’s eerie to be able to walk outside and be unrestricted.”

Wilson’s experience the last four months shows there can be light after darkness.

In late January, he was training with the LG Twins in Australia before they moved to more preseason training in Japan in early February.

At that point, South Korea was the second epicenter for coronavirus behind Wuhan, China, and the decision was made to delay the scheduled March 28 start of the KBO season.

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From training camp in Japan, Wilson left his team and returned to his family in Charlottesville.

Wilson’s family includes wife Chelsea, who was a women’s basketball player at the University of Virginia and now does commentary for ESPN, and their twin 21-month old boys Max and Brady.

The couple found out they were going to be parents of twins the same day he signed for the Twins before the start of the 2018 season.

After that 10-day period at home in Charlottesville, Wilson got word that the situation in South Korea was stabilizing.

He called back to South Korea and was tested for COVID-19 upon his return.

The test was negative, but he still had to be quarantined for two weeks. That meant staying inside his one bedroom apartment.

Food was delivered to Wilson, but he could not leave his apartment during his quarantine.

In South Korea, people serving a quarantine are required to use an app that tracks their movements.

Any violation means the quarantine period must start over — or worse — there can be fines and even prison time.

“Two weeks in one room is a long time for sure,” said Wilson.

“I tried to make the most of it because if you are by yourself on your own, even for a couple hours, you can start making bad choices or letting your mind go in different ways. I tried to set up a schedule and I woke up at the same time every day and trained at the same time. That routine and structure really allowed me to get through the days and to be productive.”

The quarantine period did ruin Wilson’s reading schedule.

Wilson said he plowed through a collection of books he brought with him that was supposed to last the entire seven-month KBO season during the two week quarantine period.

Amazingly, Wilson was also able to turn his one bedroom apartment into both a workout area and a bullpen.

“I cleared all the furniture out in the main living room and put in my bedroom,” said Wilson.

“The team brought me some dumbbells and kettlebells and TRX bands and I did as much circuit training as I could. Then I played catch with a mattress. I had just enough space to do my delivery and let go of the ball and about six inches away from the mattress and it would hit the mattress and shoot back over my shoulder and I would go pick it up and try again.”

Apartment workouts are in the past for Wilson, especially with his wife Chelsea and twin boys expected to join him in Seoul by the first week of June.

Wilson met Chelsea at Virgini,a where he starred on the Cavaliers baseball team from 2009 to 2011.

Wilson was drafted after his junior year by the Reds but came back to play his senior year in Charlottesville.

In 2011, Wilson was drafted in the 10th round by the Orioles.

By 2014, Wilson split time between the Double-A Bowie Baysox and Triple-A Norfolk Tides and was named the Jim Palmer Pitcher of the Year, given to the Orioles top minor league pitcher that season.

Wilson made his Major League debut with the Orioles the following season and was part of the 2016 team that earned a wild card spot in the playoffs.

In three seasons with the Orioles, Wilson made 42 appearances and posted an 8-10 record.

Wilson is appreciative of the opportunity given to him by the Orioles.

He made some great relationships and Hyun Soo Kim, who was on the Orioles in 2016 and 2017 is a teammate of Wilson’s on the LG Twins.

But it was stressful for Wilson.

By the end of the 2017 season, Wilson had shuttled back and forth between the Orioles and the minor leagues 28 times.

“It’s a business, and there were some tough times and going up and down as many times as I did was mentally taxing,” said Wilson.

“Getting a phone call in the middle of the night and having to wake your wife up and get her out of bed to go to a different city,” Wilson said.

“Parts of that are exciting, but a large part of that is really unstable.”

Wilson will turn 31 in September, and with a young family, he appreciates the stability of playing in South Korea.

Make no mistake — Wilson is still under pressure to produce.

He is one of only three Americans allowed on a roster in the KBO, and that means he has to be one of the better players and deliver results.

“While I’m over here, it’s my team. I see the same 25-30 guys on a daily basis for the last three years,” said Wilson.

“There isn’t as much of that in and out, in and out, and you have a chance to cultivate relationships and feel like you’re really a part of something bigger and it makes you passionate. You start to lay down roots and you start to have your heart tugged on a little bit in different ways. It felt like a transaction in the states, but here it feels like something a little bit more.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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