Saladino 'extremely thankful' for return of KBO

Former Brewers infielder playing for Samsung Lions in Korea

May 6th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- always feels lucky to step on a baseball field, but these days, that feeling is magnified.

Saladino is one of the Americans playing in the Korea Baseball Organization, which opened this week following a five-week delay due to the coronavirus. Saladino, who was with the Brewers last season and previously played in the big leagues with the White Sox, spoke to via WhatsApp after his Samsung Lions took a 4-3 loss to the NC Dinos -- Eric Thames’ former team -- in their second game of the budding season.

“You have the job to do, but honestly, it really hits me every time I get to go out there right now,” Saladino said. “It kind of stinks playing empty, quiet games. We’ve still got our cheerleading band banging the drums and they play stuff over the speakers, but the lack of fans does make it feel kind of weird. At the same time, knowing that everyone was back home getting to watch it -- man, it’s hard to describe. It’s surreal.

“I’m just extremely thankful. It’s hard to believe we’re playing when you think about everything everyone is going through back home and across the globe. So there are so many emotions. It makes you sad because you wish everyone [could play]. Then you feel obligated to perform well and make for an exciting baseball game. It’s incredibly surreal right now.”

Some Brewers fans say they’re rooting for the Lions because of Saladino, whose popularity was never higher in Milwaukee than last July, when he hit the first two grand slams of his career in back-to-back games. Others have adopted the Dinos because of the connection with Thames, a Brewers slugger in 2018-19. And some favor the Doosan Bears, for whom new Brewers pitcher Josh Lindblom won the KBO’s version of the Cy Young Award each of the past two seasons, and league MVP honors in '19, before signing a three-year deal with Milwaukee.

This week, Saladino’s Instagram was flooded with well-wishes after he shared scenes from the KBO’s Opening Day.

“There are so many people saying they are looking for joy on whatever level they can experience it,” Saladino said. “They’re glued to the TV, big baseball fans, getting to watch live baseball. There’s so many people that this has affected.”

Saladino described the past several months as “crazy” and “a whirlwind.” Saladino drew interest from Samsung in early December, soon after being non-tendered by the Brewers, and he sealed a deal following dinner with executives from that club during the Winter Meetings in San Diego. So he flew to Daegu, the Lions’ home about 150 miles southeast of Seoul, for a physical exam, then back home to Southern California for the rest of the offseason.

In February, Saladino traveled to Okinawa, Japan, for Spring Training and began to acclimate to his new team. But within weeks, the coronavirus forced the Korean and Japanese leagues to suspend operations, and rather than travel with the rest of his team to Daegu, which was home to the the first large coronavirus outbreak outside of China, Saladino and the two other Americans on the team received permission to go home to the U.S. to await the next steps. Saladino left March 9. Two days later, the World Health Organization formally declared a global pandemic.

But his stay in San Diego lasted only two weeks thanks to aggressive public-health measures in South Korea. He was summoned back to Daegu on March 23, where Saladino quarantined for 14 days. Free of the virus, he rejoined the team after that, and he was the Lions’ Opening Day shortstop on Tuesday, going 1-for-3 with a walk.

Because the virus is currently controlled in Korea, Saladino has been able to get out and about in his adopted hometown for food and supplies, while always taking steps to stay safe. Every day when players arrive at the field, they undergo temperature checks via manual tests and an overhead device that measures body temperatures and buzzes when it detects an elevated reading. Even a cup of coffee sets the device off. Saladino has undergone two nasal swab tests for COVID-19 and described the experience in great detail. It’s something he is very much hoping to avoid in the future.

Overall, however, life has become relatively normal in Daegu.

“Putting on a mask every day is your reminder of what’s going on,” Saladino said. “Our coaches and training staff still have to wear masks when they’re out on the field. Those little things are the reminders. Other than that, we’re doing the same stuff that every other baseball team would be doing every single day.”