Korean baseball is back, but 'bizarre.' Here's why Blue Jays fans should be paying attention

A sports writer covering the strange return of South Korea's baseball season says fans should brace for similarly odd experience in Toronto, if and when the 2020 season begins.

The KBO opened its season on Tuesday; no fans, spitting or handshakes are allowed

South Korea's top baseball league resumed play this week, offering the world a glimpse of professional sports under a global pandemic. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Baseball fans pining for the return of the Toronto Blue Jays should expect a very different on-field product if and when the 2020 season begins.

That's among the biggest takeaways by Jee-Ho Yoo, a sportswriter covering the professional baseball season in South Korea after Major League Baseball (MLB) delayed its 2020 season.

The KBO League held its long-delayed opening day on Tuesday, giving the world one of its first glimpses of the strange version of professional sports that will exist amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In Korea, the familiar sights of singing fans and packed stadiums have been replaced with rows of empty seats, mask-wearing umpires and players forbidden from spitting or shaking hands.

"I don't know that I'll ever get used to covering sports games without fans," Yoo told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Thursday from Seoul.

"It is very bizarre."

The 10-team KBO League is considered the second-best baseball league in Asia, after Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball. The league is well known for its raucous fans, cheerleading squads and tradition of audacious home-run bat flips, some of which could make even Jose Bautista blush.

Yoo had originally planned to spend a few days of the 2020 season in Toronto, covering the Blue Jays and all-star pitcher Hyu-jin Ryu, who joined the team in December after signing a four-year, $80 million contract.

He elected to stay in South Korea after MLB delayed its 2020 season in March.

MLB is reportedly progressing with contingency plans to salvage its season, including the possibility of playing games exclusively in select cities where teams and staff could be quarantined from the general public.

Toronto Mayor John Tory says preliminary discussions have started with the Blue Jays and Raptors on a potential return to play in the city, but there are no details or target dates. None of North America's major professional sports leagues have said when play could resume or if fans will be permitted in stadiums.

A new survey by Angus Reid suggests most Canadians are unlikely to attend live sports this year even if it becomes possible.

When asked if they would attend a live event in October or November if given free tickets to watch their favourite team, only 28 per cent of respondents said they would do so. 

A third of the respondents said they would not attend, while another 40 per cent said they would have to think twice about it.

South Korea's example may be hard to follow

The public health situation in South Korea has also made the return of professional sports somewhat easier than it may be in North America.

While South Korea at one point had the second-most COVID-19 cases in the world, it has since been widely commended for suppressing the virus through its robust system of testing, contact tracing and a strong public buy-in to mitigation efforts.

Yoo noted that South Korea's approach remains strict — schools, for instance, are not scheduled to open until next week — but the return of baseball has given its population a much-needed sign of hope.

"At least we have the league going, we have baseball action," he said. "This is one of the surest signs that life is returning to normal in Korea."

Taiwan's professional baseball league was the first Asian baseball league to resume play on April 11, and says it will allow up to 1,000 fans to attend games starting on Friday. Nippon Professional Baseball has not yet set a return date.

Members of the KBO League's SK Wyverns wearing face masks in their dugout. Players can only remove the masks while on the field. (The Associated Press)

What should MLB fans expect?

While MLB has not yet laid out firm conditions for its own return to play, Yoo said the KBO offers a few clues about what games could look like.

With empty ballparks, he said players have scaled back their on-field chatter and trash talk, which has been getting picked up on broadcasts.

(ESPN is airing live KBO League games in the United States, but no Canadian broadcaster is offering the games here.)

"There's a bit of a gentlemen's agreement between teams, I think, that they've got to tone down a little bit," Yoo said.

"Even the managers, they've joked about how they shouldn't argue with umpires so much any more because whatever they say might get picked up on TV."

But the KBO template could be harder to replicate in a league three times as large, and where 29 of the 30 teams play in the country with by far the most cases and deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Yoo said it could be more difficult to ensure MLB teams and players follow the strict guidelines in place at the KBO.

"There's a lot of adjustments for these players and teams to have to make," Yoo said.


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