A lot is riding on baseball in South Korea
The opening of the KBO schedule offers hope to fans around world
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The 10-team Korea Baseball Organization played the first five games of its delayed regular season on Tuesday — with modifications, of course.
Teams are playing in their regular stadiums, but no fans are allowed. Everyone involved in playing and televising the games gets their temperature checked on the way in, while the umpires and first- and third-base coaches have to wear masks on the field. Players can choose to wear masks too, and some did at times during exhibition games. Spitting is prohibited, which also means no sunflower seeds or chewing tobacco.
To try and create some semblance of atmosphere in the absence of Korea's famously boisterous fans, one team put giant banners in the outfield seats with pictures of spectators (wearing masks) on them. Scoreboards showed video messages from fans, players and celebrities thanking health-care workers. Cheerleaders (yes, Korean baseball teams have cheerleaders) did their routines from the stands.
Judging by some video clips from Tuesday's games, there's quite a bit of noise from the players when someone hits a home run. So the atmosphere is eerie, sure, but not completely dead. And one key element of Korean baseball remains, thankfully, intact: the gratuitous bat flips. Here's proof:
it's still bat flip szn <a href="https://t.co/TyU5E3BHOO">pic.twitter.com/TyU5E3BHOO</a>—@MaxWildstein
The KBO season is starting about five weeks late. It was postponed back in early March, around the time South Korea was reporting about 500 new infections a day. That number was down to three on Tuesday. Only about 250 people have died of COVID-19 in a country with a population around 50 million (Canada is closing in on 4,000 deaths).
South Korea's outcomes have been credited to the country's aggressive testing, isolation and contact-tracing measures. It also helps that wearing masks and obeying authority figures is more ingrained in the culture than it is in some other parts of the world. It's all paying off: physical-distancing measures are being relaxed, and schools will even begin reopening next week. At the moment, South Korea looks like a success story.
It also looks like a good place to be a sports fan. Korea's pro soccer leagues are scheduled to kick off Friday (also without fans), and the KBO plans to do a full 144-game regular season. If all goes well, the only dates that will be lost are the all-star game (already cancelled) and maybe a few first-round playoff games (that round has been shortened from best-of-five to best-of-three).
WATCH | Baseball begins in South Korea:
The KBO is walking a thin line, though. Its leaders have promised to consider shutting down the entire league for three weeks if any member of a team tests positive for COVID-19 at any point. Interestingly, teams aren't being required to regularly test their players — something that's been talked about as a possible prerequisite for sports returning here in North America. ESPN's Jeff Passan said one Korean team told him it's simply monitoring its players for symptoms, and will only test if someone shows signs of being infected.
So, here in North America, what should we make of all this? One thing's for sure: the Western world has never been this interested in Korean baseball before. ESPN senses this: it struck a deal to broadcast six games a week in the United States. Online betting companies probably won't be far behind. It's still hard to find wagering on individual games (for now), but several sites have posted odds on which team will win the KBO championship.
No one in Canada has announced plans to broadcast Korean games yet. But there is one Canadian player in the KBO: Jamie Romak, a 34-year-old first baseman from London, Ont., who had a cup of coffee in the majors with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. Romak now plays for SK Wyverns, which is based in Incheon (close to Seoul), and he's kind of a star. He tied for second in the league in homers in 2018 with 43, and last year he hit 29. He's also a married father of two sons — including a newborn — who has had to cope with his family being in Canada and unable to join him. But he also feels he and his fellow players are "in a fortunate spot" having the chance to work and provide for their families.
WATCH | Jamie Romak details playing in COVID-19 era:
The only other player I recognized on any of the Korean rosters is Dan Straily, a journeyman pitcher who started his big-league career with Oakland and played for Baltimore last year.
Still, here we've got actual, live, televised pro sports (and, potentially, gambling!). It's good to know these pleasures still exist — even if they're coming from halfway around the world. So in that sense, the return of Korean baseball is an encouraging sign for us in North America. Maybe we can make this happen in the near future too.
But South Korea is a different place. It seems like we've done a decent job of fighting the pandemic here in Canada, but Koreans are just better at this. And things still feel precarious in the U.S., which will have to get its act together in order for our pro sports to come back in a sustainable way.
Everyone is rooting for Korean baseball to succeed right now because, if it fails, we're left with a pretty dark thought: If they can't pull this off, what hope do we have?