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Pitching Through a Pandemic

Former Wildcat hurler Eric Jokisch finds fulfillment with the Korean Baseball Organization’s Kiwoom Heroes.

Former Northwestern baseball player Eric Jokisch pitches for the Kiwoom Heroes in the Korean Baseball Organization.

By Jacob Muñoz
June 10, 2020
Online Exclusives

Sports fans worldwide know of a certain kind of pain. Whether it’s a timeout, a commercial break or referees reviewing a game-changing moment, a break in the action is never satisfying.

So when the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, athletes, coaches and fans alike were faced with a giant pause on an international scale. Leagues were suspended, tournaments were canceled, and comforting pastimes were taken away — right when we needed them most.

For veteran pitcher Eric Jokisch ’10, however, a return to “normal” arrived much sooner than expected — and well before his American counterparts. As a starter for the Korean Baseball Organization’s (KBO) Kiwoom Heroes, Jokisch returned to the mound at a time when many leagues worldwide could not conceive of resuming play — South Korea’s management of the virus has been praised — and he walked into an international spotlight. 

Sports giant ESPN reached an exclusive English-language deal to broadcast the 10-team league’s games to an American audience. Once the KBO’s monthlong delay ended in early May, U.S. viewers could watch both live games in the early morning and later rebroadcasts of a familiar sport.

“We’re very lucky to be part of a league and country that was able to control COVID-19 very quickly and get us back on the field,” says Jokisch. “The league has a protocol in place if a positive test shows up. … It’s a tough situation, but with the daily positives in the low teens or single digits every day, the country seems to be keeping it under control.”

Jokisch’s journey to Korea came after nearly a decade of battling to make a major league roster. After finishing his Wildcat career with 17 career wins and a first-team All–Big Ten nod in 2010, he was selected in the 11th round of the MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs. He spent six consecutive seasons with the organization, mainly with its minor league affiliates.

In 2014 Jokisch made four appearances with the Cubs and even started a game. But he didn’t catch on with the team for good. Over the next few years he bounced around between several other organizations, most recently the Oakland Athletics in 2018, before deciding to give the KBO a try in 2019. He ended up starting 30 games as a league rookie — the most of any pitcher on the Heroes — and posted a 13-9 record. He also helped his team reach the championship series.

In four starts this season the southpaw is 5-0 with a 0.94 ERA for the 18-14 Heroes. He’s looking forward to baseball in Korea getting back to normal.

“Hopefully they start allowing fans to come to games soon,” says Joskich of the spirited Korean crowds, “because it’ll just be that much more entertaining for people everywhere to watch. It’s something that really has to be seen — a wild, football-like crowd for 140 baseball games.”

Because each KBO team has a limited number of roster spots for foreign players, Jokisch knows he’s lucky to be playing ball at this time. 

“I knew that baseball was huge in South Korea, and it was awesome last year to be recognized by fans all over the country, but this year has taken it to another level,” he says. “I’ve been getting messages from friends everywhere saying they were watching games on ESPN and looking to get some Kiwoom Heroes gear.

“In America I spent most of my time in AAA, and there everyone’s focus is trying to get to the major leagues. So, to be here and have one goal, to win a championship, is awesome.”

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