Act Four

Watching the KBO is the perfect preparation for our new normal

Hanwha Eagles players wear masks at the empty SK Happy Dream Ballpark on Tuesday in Incheon, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

The weather was unseasonably gloomy for a spring day in Washington. At 3 p.m. on a workday, it was a little early to crack open a beer, and Peapod doesn’t have Cracker Jack in stock for delivery. And the game I was watching wasn’t even live: It was a replay of the Opening Day matchup between the NC Dinos and the Samsung Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization, airing on ESPN2. But at least it was baseball.

And if I didn’t get off my couch with a pleasantly sunburned neck and a tiny plastic souvenir helmet Opening Day bauble, I did come away with a small glimpse into our future and the way the covid-19 pandemic will force us to navigate a million small adjustments in exchange for familiar pleasures.

I’ve watched baseball games in tiny minor league stadiums in Vermont and languid spring training facilities in Florida, in freezing Boston Octobers and in one rather drab Tokyo spring. The fundamentals of the game are always the same, and they remained so during Tuesday’s broadcast. A batter faces off against a pitcher. Three strikes and he’s out; four balls and he takes a base. The grass is manicured, the ads on the stadium walls intrusive. The sound of a bat connecting with a ball for a home run is the same in any language. So is the frustration on a hurler’s face — in this case, former major leaguer Drew Rucinski — as an inning gets away from him.

It’s the little things that are different, and there are so many of them when you’re watching another country’s sports league play under totally unprecedented circumstances. Watching the Dinos and Lions, my eyes kept catching on the advertisements I couldn’t read and an umpire whose mask, intended to prevent possible infection, didn’t quite seem to be covering his nose. Even the limited background noise was jarring after weeks of quiet at home. Nothing felt as instinctive as it ought: not my sense of when a pitcher ought to come out of a game, nor my understanding of whether the contest was a pairing of fierce rivals or a foolishly lopsided matchup.

Supporters are printed on banners at the SK Wyverns Baseball Park in Incheon, South Korea, on Tuesday. (Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
The home plate umpire wears a mask during the Korean Baseball Organization League opening game at SK Happy Dream Ballpark on Tuesday in Incheon, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Baseball fans watch the game from outside the stadium in Incheon, South Korea, on Tuesday. (Lee Jin-Man/AP)
TOP: Supporters are printed on banners at the SK Wyverns Baseball Park in Incheon, South Korea, on Tuesday. (Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) BOTTOM LEFT: The home plate umpire wears a mask during the Korean Baseball Organization League opening game at SK Happy Dream Ballpark on Tuesday in Incheon, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images) BOTTOM RIGHT: Baseball fans watch the game from outside the stadium in Incheon, South Korea, on Tuesday. (Lee Jin-Man/AP)

ESPN announcers Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez seemed a little out of step, too, in ways that can be only partly explained by the wee hours at which they were calling the games. Trying to provide live commentary about a game that you’re watching streamed rather than in person while also adjusting your brain to new rosters, matchups, strike zones and norms can’t be easy. At least they had Daniel Kim, a former Mets interpreter who now covers baseball from Seoul, to guide them — and the rest of us — through the relative hitter-friendliness of the parks and the narratives to watch in Korean baseball this season.

But that’s what we will have to do in the months and years to come. The mental calibrations involved in watching the Korean Baseball Organization are the perfect preparation for a return to a world where we want the same things but have to go about all of them differently.

We’ll find ourselves saying more aggressively cheerful hellos to our neighbors to make up for the fact that our expressions are obscured by masks — and feel new spikes of vexation when someone brushes past us or joins a queue without bothering to pull up a face covering.

Once-crowded restaurants will feel emptier and more somber.

At the movies, we won’t be annoyed when the people in the row in front of us whisper through the showing or when the people in the row behind us put their feet up on our seats, because we’ll be in staggered seating that keeps us apart. We won’t miss those irritants — but we may miss the roar of several hundred people laughing together at the same joke or the intake of air when we all gasp at the same surprise.

Our pleasures will be there, if we can look beyond our anxieties to see them. The sky into which the NC Dinos kept launching long balls didn’t seem especially lovely on ESPN’s broadcast. But Kim got it right when he told his fellow broadcasters, “If there’s live baseball, it’s a beautiful day to me.”

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: The big-screen brawl that could reshape the movies

Will Leitch: In a world without sports, ESPN scrambles for a new game plan

Henry Olsen: Major League Baseball should open its season with the All-Star Game

Molly Roberts: We all need to be nicer to each other

Rick Reilly: The first things I’ll do when this is all over

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