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Baseball returned, live from South Korea, with a socially distant first pitch and a bat flip

South Korea's professional baseball league officially opened May 5, as the country saw the lowest daily jump of new coronavirus cases in nearly three months. (Video: AP)
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Baseball returned, and it was, of course, different.

For one thing, it was taking place in South Korea in the wee hours of Tuesday morning in the United States. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, there were no fans in the stands as the Korea Baseball Organization season began, but there was coverage on ESPN for U.S. fans starved for live sports.

Just how different was it?

Nats’ Eric Thames recalled fond memories of his time in Korea before KBO Opening Day

Banners depicting face mask-wearing fans were stretched across random seats, making for a surreal backdrop to the action.

It was surreal on the field, too. During introductions, players wore face masks as they stood along the baselines; rules call for them to wear face masks at all times in all areas other than on the playing field and in the dugouts. Umpires wore masks and gloves, with home plate umpires adding another layer of protection with cloth face masks.

Other concessions to the threat of the coronavirus mean there will be no shaking of hands and no high-fives. And that most ubiquitous sports activity — spitting — is prohibited. For Suwon’s KT Wiz, protection extended even to the ceremonial first pitch.

Participants are tested regularly; if any team member tests positive, the league will be shut down for at least three weeks.

One other big difference? Cheerleaders. Each team has a squad that cheers no matter what the score and sings a song for each batter as he steps to the plate.

As for Opening Day, the action began in fits and starts. There was a rain delay in the Samsung Lions-NC Dinos game, shown on ESPN, because nothing is going right in 2020.

And the game between the Kia Tigers and Kiwoom Heroes was delayed because of smoke from a fire in a building near the ballpark.

But there was baseball. Real, live baseball. There was even a bat flip.

For one fan, it was enough just to know what was going on inside the stadium in Incheon.

“I feel great,” Cho Ki-hyun, a 65-year-old SK Wyverns fan who shared a mattress with three other fans, told the Associated Press as he watched the game on a tablet from outside the stadium. “I am delighted just to hear the sounds of a baseball game from outside.”

Until Major League Baseball starts up, the 10-team KBO will supply action for ESPN, which will show live games six times per week.

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