Suwon, South Korea – The morning alarm is an incredibly deflating way to wake up each morning, but it is of course necessary for most of us. Chad Billingsley is not most of us.
On this particular morning, as he’s done every morning since arriving in Suwon, Chad Billingsly is on his third set of pushups when his phone alarm starts going off. He quickly swipes his finger to turn it off, and finishes his third set. Drops of sweat are visible on the phones screen. The time is 5:25 AM.
“I set my alarm in case I oversleep for some reason,” Billingsley says, as I ask him if he’s ever actually needed the alarm. “No, not yet,” he says, laughing. “But you never know. I can’t afford to miss a workout these days.”
The 35-year-old former MLB and CBLer is still at the same 240 pound playing weight he’s been at since 2014, but he insists he feels stronger, quicker, healthier these days.
“The morning workouts keep me in good shape,” Billingsley tells me as he finishes his final set of sit ups. “I still don’t eat as well as I should, and I’m older, so it’s hard to actually lose weight. But I feel great.”
Some would argue the reason he feels great these days is because he’s no longer playing in the US, where he’d grown increasingly unhappy over the last few years.
Following the collapse of Major League Baseball, Billingsley was selected in the 21st round by the Charlotte Knights in the newly formed CBL. He would make 9 starts and one relief appearance over the course of the 82 game season, finishing with an unsightly 6.70 ERA over 45 innings.
“I was terrible. I was out of shape. And it was 45 innings. That was one month in Major League Baseball, but a whole season in this new league.” Billingsley tells me. “I just blamed it on the sample size. I figured I would’ve gotten things together in my next 60 innings. I had plenty of bad 45 inning stretches during my Major League career. I wasn’t worried at all.”
He probably should have been. Charlotte decided not to protect him in the league’s expansion draft in the off-season, and he was an 11th round selection by Altoona. With another 82 game season on the way, Billingsley felt he needed to get off to a good start. Again, he didn’t. In 28 innings over 6 games, Billingsley managed an even worse 8.04 ERA. With his contract expiring, Altoona decided not to offer him an extension.
As a 31-year-old free agent starting pitcher who’d had success prior to the CBL’s inception, Billingsley expected at least a few teams to have interest.
“I guess I didn’t comprehend how many less pitching jobs their were,” Billingsley admits.
The league had just 14 teams in it’s inaugural season, and then expanded to 18 the following season. With 5-man rotations, there had been 150 starters at a time in the major leagues. CBL had just 70 available slots in its first season, and then 90 in 2015. It was considerably easier for teams to replace struggling pitchers in the CBL, because every team had a lot more depth. There was no reason to stick with a struggling pitcher because teams had similar talent available in the minor leagues.
After Billingsley’s disaster filled two seasons in the CBL, no team had any interest. Despite languishing on the free agent market for the entire 2016 and 2017 seasons, he refused to retire. He still worked out on a routine basis, and continued to believe it was only a matter of time before someone came calling. His persistence paid off following the 2017 season, as the league announced it was expanding yet again, from 18 to 20 teams.
The expansion Colorado Gold Sox signed Billingsley on Christmas Eve, 2017 for $820,000 for 1 year.
Unfortunately, after posting a 6.00 ERA over his first 30 innings in Colorado, Billingsley was released in mid June of 2018. It appeared to be the end of the road for the former all-star.
“Oh, yeah,” says Billingsley. “I hadn’t played in 2 years, I came back and struggled. I figured that was it. Time to hang it up.”
Nine months later, Billingsley’s agent called him.
“The KT Wiz of the Korean Baseball Organization are interested in signing you and wanted to know if you’d consider playing over there,” his agent explained. “It’d be a 2 year deal for between $800,000 and $900,000, and they’ll pay your housing expenses and get you a car.”
Billingsley was in. He just wanted to continue to play baseball.
“I said when I came over here I’d work my ass off, but I’d also appreciate the opportunity,” Billingsley says over lunch. “I make sure I go see one new place a week that has some historical or cultural significance. This might be my last ride.”
In his first season playing for KT Wiz, he threw 195 innings, posting a 3.51 ERA. After an incredibly difficult five years, it was nice for him to have success again.
This season he’s been even better, posting a 2.80 ERA in 11 starts and currently leading the league in strikeouts with 91. At 35 years old, he’s having a bit of a career rebirth. His contract runs out after this season, so it will be interesting to see if any CBL teams come knocking this time around. With a 162 game schedule in effect for the past few years, the league is always in need of more pitching. It’s possible a team could be looking to Korea to start finding some pitching reinforcements, and Billingsley has been a huge success.
Despite being a semi-famous American baseball player and having a lot of success in his two seasons, Billingsley isn’t a well known commodity in Korea.
“People look at me funny when I go out, because I’m a fat white guy in Korea, but nobody knows who I am. And people love baseball here. Or maybe their just polite, but nobody’s ever asked me for an autograph or even said hello.” As he says this, two Korean teenagers approach us at our table.
“Excuse me, sir,” One of the boys says politely, looking at Chad. “But are you Brad Pitt?”
Billingsley looks at me, smiles and winks.
“Sure am, kiddo. Want to take a picture?”
Three minutes and 25 selfies later, Chad pays our lunch bill and continues to laugh about being confused for Brad Pitt.
“My wife’s going to think it’s impossible,” he tells me as we head to our cars.
The teenage boys think they’ve just gotten a picture with Brad Pitt, and they can’t contain their excitement. Billingsley continues to laugh.
“I’m not usually very funny, but I thought that was great,” he laughs. “Maybe if I play over here for a few more years people will confuse Brad Pitt for me instead of the other way around. I haven’t even thought about going back to the states. I love it here.”
Whatever Chad Billingsley does next, it’s good to see someone who’s worked so hard to get back to where they once were having success. We’ll see if the CBL feels he’s ready to get another shot, or if he’ll just remain an elite pitcher in the KBO. The only thing we know for sure is that he’ll be awake before his alarm goes off at 5:25 no matter where he is.