The 10-minute walk to Sajik Stadium is a lot quieter these days.
Typically, whether it's Sajik Stadium in Busan or Jamsil Stadium in Seoul, Kerry Maher, an American from Waycross, Georgia, gets stopped by his fellow fans at Korea Baseball Organization games, where he's known by three different nicknames: "Santa Grandfather," "Lotte Grandfather" and "KFC Grandfather." Last year on Lotte Giants Opening Day, Maher was approached by more than 200 fans asking for a selfie. Sometimes kids ask their parents whether Maher is the real Santa Claus.
"I don't know where they got 'KFC Grandfather,'" Maher says. "I guess it's the white beard."
Thanks in part to that beard, Maher is far and away the most recognizable KBO superfan in South Korea. He has become so well known, the Lotte Giants added him to the payroll before this season to help foreign-born players acclimate to the country. And with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down sports across the world, he's now among the few fans on the planet still able to attend live professional sporting events, one of a select group of people allowed into KBO ballparks.
During a Giants game last Wednesday at a nearly empty Sajik Stadium -- located in the seaside city of Busan, a three-hour bullet train ride south from Seoul -- Maher can clearly hear the chatter in the dugout, the gunshot slaps of the catcher's mitt and every player's grunt, a surreal experience for a fan who has averaged around 120 Lotte Giants games, home and away, the past five seasons. Even coaches from the opposing team come over, as usual, and greet Maher in the stands during batting practice.
"I'm just sitting there by myself, and the players recognize me from the field," Maher says. "They usually wave and say hello. It's a weird experience."
But while the players and coaches notice him, it's the first time in years, Maher says, that he has attended a Korean baseball game and a fellow fan hasn't asked him for a photo.
South Korean society is in the midst of a slow restart, with social distancing regulations loosening, businesses reopening, city traffic returning and the country's baseball league springing into action. It has caught the world's attention -- something Maher has been regularly reminded of by the texts he receives from his friends watching the games in the United States on ESPN. But the road back has been bumpy, with a recent outbreak stemming from a Seoul nightclub leading to fears of a second wave, and forcing the government to postpone its plans to open schools for the first time in two months. If one KBO player tests positive, the league will shut down for three weeks.
Since the KBO kicked off its season earlier this month, Maher still occasionally runs into fans outside Sajik Stadium. For years, Maher had never refused a photo request.
Recently, though, he's added one rule.
"If they don't have a mask," Maher says, "I say no."
"HE'S LIKE A superhero over there. I mean, everybody knows Kerry's seat right in front of the stage," says Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Lindblom, the 2019 KBO MVP who spent five seasons in the league, including 2015 through 2017 with the Lotte Giants. "He might've been more famous than some of the players, to be honest with you. I'd get a little jealous at times that people would want pictures with Kerry instead of me."
The recognition sometimes happens internationally, like when Maher visited his twin brother, Kevin, the former director of the State Department's Office of Japan Affairs, in Washington, D.C. At the Lincoln Memorial, a group of six South Korean tourists slowly approached Maher to ask him a question.
"Can we take a picture with you? You're the Lotte guy," they said.
"What the hell's going on here?" Kevin asked his brother. "What is happening?"
The journey to South Korean baseball celebrity started in August 2008, when Maher moved to Ulsan to teach elementary school. After pursuing a career in Hollywood, with IMDb listing his credits in movies such as "The Road to Wellville," starring Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick, Maher settled into his job as a lecturer at the University of South Carolina, where he taught public speaking to students, including Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield and Brewers first baseman Justin Smoak. When his 84-year-old stepfather, for whom he was the sole caregiver, died, Maher decided to take the leap and move to South Korea.
"When he passed away, I was just free," Maher says.
Three years after moving to the country, Maher started teaching at Youngsan University, a small college in the city of Yansan, a 45-minute ride from Busan. It was on a school field trip when Maher first got a taste of Korean baseball. When he walked up the concourse to his seat, he felt an energy in the crowd he'd never felt at Major League Baseball games. KBO games feature cheers for every player, singing and dancing, cheerleaders and passionate fans.
"I've always said that MLB is like opera," Maher says. "KBO is like rock-and-roll."
In the early days of his fandom, Maher wore a San Francisco Giants jersey to games because the Lotte Giants simply didn't sell a fan uniform in his size. Maher once noted to an interviewer that he would need the jersey of Jun-seok Choi, a KBO slugger known for his large frame (6-foot-2, 286 pounds) and majestic bat flips, to find a Lotte Giants uniform that actually fit. When news got around to the team that the American fan who resembled Santa Claus needed a jersey, the Giants called Maher onto the field after a game and gave him one of Choi's.
"That kind of started everything," Maher says.
It wasn't long before Maher was building his class schedule around his daily moped and bus ride to Busan to watch the Giants play. Then came the trips for Giants road games, something the players noticed.
"You go on the road, especially like when he would come to Seoul, Lotte has such a huge following that you walk in, it doesn't matter," Lindblom says. "Kerry is always sitting right here."
One night, the Lotte Giants TV broadcast singled out Maher, noting that "the professor" was at the game once again, and joking with the television audience by asking how Maher even finds time to teach classes given his avid Giants fandom.
Soon, KBO fans could hardly ignore the fact that a guy who looked like Santa kept showing up to Lotte Giants games. Fan interest in photos started increasing. Another American fan who regularly attends KBO games eventually created a custom Lotte Giants jersey that reads, "I am not Kerry professor" because he kept getting stopped for photos.
"You see a lot of Westerners go to the games, and they mug for the camera and wear costumes and things trying to be on TV," Maher says. "But honestly, I never did that. I just tried to be a fan. I never was mugging for the camera or trying to be famous. It just happened."
Sung Min Kim, a former writer for FanGraphs and The Athletic who now works for the Giants, took notice of Maher's unusual passion for the team. Kim, before he joined Lotte's front office, began spending time with Maher when he'd go to games. Whenever he and Maher would chat, whether they were inside or outside the stadium, Kim always noticed a line of around 10 to 30 people waiting to get a photo with the Lotte Grandfather.
"Obviously, it is always unusual to see someone who's not Korean who's really into Korean baseball," Kim says. "Not only that he doesn't really look Korean, obviously, but also, I mean, he really stands out just because of how he looks. He's got a big beard. He's a really big guy. It also happens that the Lotte Giants have a really, really big die-hard fan base. So it just all comes together for him to be a local celebrity and a culture here in Sajik."
Maher got to know Lindblom after he approached the pitcher on Opening Day in Lindblom's first year with the Giants. "I hadn't heard English in I don't know how long, and it was Kerry," Lindblom says. "Right then and there, we immediately struck up a friendship."
The two picked up a routine of eating at a small fried chicken restaurant just a few alleys away from Sajik Stadium. After home games, Lindblom would meet Maher, already sitting at a table. As Maher partook in chimaek, a popular Korean late-night activity and restaurant subculture in which friends gather after work specifically to eat Korean-style fried chicken and drink beer (known in Korean as maekju, hence the portmanteau chimaek), he would chat with Lindblom about everything from baseball to family to religion to the cultural transition for an American in South Korea.
"We joke around KBO baseball saying that during the season you don't get to pick your friends," Lindblom says. "In Korea, you only have two friends on your team that are American and that you can talk to. Kerry had been there, had been in Busan so long, he was a huge help showing us restaurants around Sajik. So just having him as somebody that we could talk with, ask about different things, just somebody that wasn't connected with the team, was a huge help."
But Maher's fortunes flipped when he turned 65 last year, pushed into mandatory retirement by the university. Suddenly without a work visa, Maher faced the prospect of being forced to return to the United States and leave behind the Lotte Giants community. Last August, as he mulled over his future, Maher and his friends took a trip to watch baseball in Seoul, where he ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee after slipping on a rock.
The injury extended Maher's stay in Korea, allowing him extra time to figure out his work visa situation. Lindblom, playing in Seoul for the Doosan Bears in 2019, lived a block and a half away from the hospital and visited his friend. Maher explained his pending departure from the country if he could not find another job. With a reporter there to interview a visibly upset Maher, Lindblom took the opportunity to speak about his friend's cultural impact on Korean baseball.
"When this is your life now, and then all of a sudden you have to come back to the U.S. where you haven't been in however long he was there for, it's like, what do you do?" Lindblom says. "He was going to have to leave, just up and leave and be severed from his life."
As Maher's story circulated through the Korean press, the passionate fan reaction caught the attention of newly minted Lotte Giants general manager Min-kyu Sung, a former minor league player and scout for the Chicago Cubs, hired in September. Sung called Maher in the hospital and asked what the team could do to help keep the Santa Grandfather in Korea. Maher told Sung he would do anything the team needed if they offered him a job. Sung promptly named Maher the team's foreign player manager, responsible for helping overseas stars adjust to Korean culture.
"Lotte, knowing that they were going to lose one of their biggest fans, stepped up," Lindblom says. "It shows you how important the culture is to the people in Korean baseball in general."
Before receiving the job offer, Maher had nothing but time to dwell on his future while sitting in the hospital, wondering whether he'd be able to stay in South Korea. With his future in his adopted home secure, Maher could focus on his recovery, with nearly six weeks required in a leg cast. When he was finally healthy enough to leave the hospital, now armed with a new official capacity with his favorite team, Maher's reality as the country's most recognizable sports fan came rushing back.
"When I left, all the nurses got together and wanted pictures," Maher says. "And the doctor."
THE CORONAVIRUS HAS scarred Maher's first full season with the Giants, but the 65-year-old continues his work with Lotte's foreign-born players -- Dixon Machado, a Venezuelan, and Americans Dan Straily and Adrian Sampson. Following an embarrassing season in which the Giants finished with the league's worst record and the highest payroll, Lotte cleared house and brought in Sung and his MLB experience to run the club, as well as people such as Kim and Maher.
"I was kind of out of luck," Maher says. "Sung Min-kyu saved my life."
As part of his major responsibilities, Maher put together a 90-page presentation with Kim, introducing the players to Korea, the KBO, Korean culture and the language. Players such as Lindblom say that getting acclimated to a completely different culture represents 90% of the challenge for most foreign players. Kim has noticed that the foreign players are already taking to the manual, specifically pointing to Straily's exceptional politeness to the Korean umpires, a sign of respect to authority figures in the country's baseball culture.
As he watches the United States struggle to contain the coronavirus outbreak, Maher says he feels proud to be living in Korea.
"When I talk to my friends in the States, I tell them how wonderful not only just the country is, the health care system, the way they handled the coronavirus, and then the fact that they were able to start playing baseball before any other country in the world," Maher says. "It's a sense of pride that I'm affiliated with Korea and I'm affiliated with the Lotte Giants."
In nearby Taiwan, they've just recently begun to allow a limited number of fans into ballparks, with restrictions.
When asked what kept him in South Korea for all of these years, visiting America every few years, Maher takes a moment to ponder the question.
"I've never been married. I don't have a family, except for my brothers in the States," Maher says. "When I was in the hospital with my knee, I was amazed how many people came. I realized how many really good friends I had. They brought me food, and they really helped me out. So it was really touching. At first it was fellow teachers and things, but with the Lotte fans, I honestly say my Lotte family. That's one of the reasons I stayed. The relationships I had with not only Lotte fans, but Koreans in general."
Lindblom, now back at home in America watching KBO games with his son, misses the passion of Korean fans, the ballpark atmosphere, and the nights spent with Maher eating fried chicken after games. "A lot of the people have talked about how Korean baseball is its own little subset of culture. Within that community, there's these larger-than-life figures that nobody else would even think of, like why is this guy that looks like Santa Claus so famous? He's just a superfan. He loves Lotte, he loves Korean baseball, and fans all over the country know about him.
"The fans make the league special," Lindblom says. "And to think about those superfans like Kerry, that's what Korean baseball is."
The texts keep coming from Maher's friends in America, who tell him how much they wish they could watch baseball in person instead of being cooped up at home. As he sits alone in the empty stadium, Maher -- still a superfan but now a Giants employee, too -- can't help but feel gracious about how a serendipitous series of events led him to this seat during an unprecedented international pandemic.
"It's just really a strange feeling to come home and say, 'Well, I'm one of the few people that gets to watch baseball in the world.' I feel guilty, but not guilty enough to not go," Maher says. "I'm not that noble."