“A guy comes in, he’s done something good, and I want to go high-five him,” Conger said. “But it’s like, ‘Oh, crap, I have to use the elbow.’ ”
With South Korea’s Korea Baseball Organization preparing to launch its delayed 2020 regular season Tuesday, all three — Saladino, a 30-year-old infielder for the Samsung Lions; Motter, a 30-year-old utility man for the Kiwoom Heroes; and Conger, a 32-year-old catching instructor for the Lotte Giants — are grateful for the return of real, meaningful baseball, even in a foreign country thousands of miles from their homes in the United States and even without fans, at least initially.
But all three, who have been competing in KBO intrasquad and exhibition games for several weeks, are constantly reminded, in divergent ways, of the surreal situation confronting them. And their experience could help inform Major League Baseball as it plots its way through the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In the KBO, reminders of the high stakes and the continued (though mitigated) health risk are never far away. Umpires and other nonuniformed personnel wear masks and gloves at all times, though players and coaches don’t have to. There are rules outlawing spitting and high-fives. And all involved, including the players, have their temperature checked when they enter or leave the stadium.
But the biggest reminder of all is in what’s missing — namely, the fans.
“The fans are so passionate here. They love baseball,” said Chad Bell, a left-hander who pitched in parts of two seasons for the Detroit Tigers before signing with the Hanwha Eagles in 2018. “ … If you’re down 10 or up 10, they do the same thing every game. I love it. That’s where you get your adrenaline rush, your energy for the game. They feed it to you from the stands. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed we’ve got to start without fans.”
Getting to this point — the KBO is set to become the second major baseball circuit, after Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, to open its 2020 season — has required a semi-miraculous confluence of strict national public policy, countless personal sacrifices, the buy-in of players and other personnel, and constant and continued vigilance on the part of everyone involved.
Though South Korea had its first confirmed case of the coronavirus on the same date as the United States, Jan. 20, the former has been a model for an aggressive, successful response, while the latter is still fighting to contain the outbreak. On Tuesday, South Korea saw just 14 new cases of the coronavirus (down from a peak of 909 on Feb. 29), bringing its total to just 10,752. In the United States, by comparison, there were 24,129 new cases Tuesday for a total of 1,007,955.
Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University epidemiologist whose virus forecasts have been cited by the White House, pointed to South Korea’s response as the blueprint to follow. The country recently has seen only a dozen or so new cases each day, society there is largely open, the economy is humming, and the KBO season is about to begin.
“You have to look at what the South Koreans have done. They’ve been remarkably successful at this. They provide a template for the rest of the world to follow,” he said. “We should really be paying attention to it and doing it as closely as possible.”
South Korea achieved its curve-flattering through an aggressive policy of self-isolation and social distancing — a policy that directly affected the KBO and the 30 or so Americans playing in the league this season. Spring training was underway when the KBO, as the virus spread in early March, shut down operations and delayed the start of the season. Most American players went back to the United States to wait out the delay, only to be summoned back to South Korea two weeks later as the situation rapidly improved.
Foreign players arriving in Seoul immediately underwent a coronavirus test and spent 14 days under strict quarantine at their hotel or apartment. Some teams provided players with workout equipment, including stationary bikes and weights. Bell took an extra mattress and propped it against a wall so he could throw plyo balls — weighted, rubber balls the size of baseballs — against it.
“If you were caught outside, there was a chance you could be deported,” Samsung Lions pitcher Ben Lively, formerly of the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals, told Philadelphia’s NBC 10.
Even after the quarantine was over, each player was expected to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines, which included wearing a mask in public. Conger said he learned the hard way what would happen if you forgot your mask when he was turned away from a bank and had to walk a half-mile back to the stadium to retrieve it.
“They knew what they were doing,” Conger, a 2006 first-round draft pick who played parts of seven seasons in the majors, said of the South Korean government. “They put the whole country on lockdown. They’d send out a daily text message telling you where there had been an outbreak and ‘Make sure you stay inside.’ It was impressive to see.”
That assured, aggressive response has imbued the American players with a sense of sympathy when they compare it to the situation back home.
“Thinking about back home, it stinks what’s going on,” said Saladino, who played parts of five seasons with the Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers. “I go to the store here, and there’s just shelves and shelves of sanitizer and masks. I wish I could buy every single one of them and put them in the mail.”
At the stadiums, everyone is funneled through a single entrance and exit, where there are mandatory temperature checks upon arrival and departure. Motter recalled twice seeing teammates escorted out after registering slight temperatures; both, he said, were administered coronavirus tests, which came back negative.
According to Bell, the team goes so far as to monitor players’ routes to and from the stadium to make sure they aren’t coming into contact with infected people. The league has said a single player testing positive would result in an automatic three-week shutdown of operations.
Once inside the stadiums, the players are under few restrictions, although in at least some clubhouses the dining areas have been outfitted with fiberglass partitions between eating stations.
“There’s no [social] distancing in the dugouts,” Saladino said. “It’s a normal dugout with, like, 30 people in it.”
The ban on high-fives and spitting, for players accustomed to plenty of both, has taken some getting used to. Bell compared spitting to biting your fingernails — a mindless habit that’s difficult to shake — while Saladino has had some well-publicized trouble with the high-five. After scoring in the Lions’ first exhibition game, he high-fived a teammate before realizing in horror what he had done.
“I made the papers for that,” he said.
Most of the Americans spend their free time FaceTiming their families back home — South Korea is 13 hours ahead of Washington, 16 ahead of Los Angeles. Some of them have abandoned, at least for now, plans to bring their spouses or other family members to be with them because, among other reasons, they would have to quarantine on their own for two weeks.
“I talk to them every day not really knowing when I’ll see them next,” said Bell, who has a wife and three young children in Knoxville, Tenn.
In a matter of days, with its regular season opener, the KBO — considered the world’s third-best league behind MLB and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball — will surge into the consciousness of a society starving for live sports. That is true not only in South Korea — where exhibition games have drawn three times the viewership of 2019 regular season games, according to journalist Daniel Kim, who covers the KBO for DIA TV and Sports Magazine MBC — but in the United States as well.
ESPN is expected to finalize plans soon to air KBO games live — treating American baseball fans, in the continued absence of major league baseball, to the wonders of Korean-style baseball, with its small-ball tendencies, funky sidearm specialists and epic and outrageous bat flips.
The absence of fans will deprive viewers of one of the American players’ favorite aspects of the KBO — the raucous atmosphere, replete with cheerleaders and boisterous crowds that stay on their feet for entire games, chanting and singing.
“It’s like being at a smaller version of a World Cup soccer game,” Bell said.
The KBO’s hope is that, as the virus recedes and the government reopens society, it can begin phasing in fans, perhaps starting with filling a quarter of a stadium’s seats to maintain social distancing. What’s coming Tuesday will be real baseball, but it won’t be the real KBO.
“I still think the real Opening Day,” Kim said, “is the day that fans are allowed back in the stadium.”
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