The Korean Baseball League (KBO) opened its delayed season on Tuesday, May 5th in empty stadiums across South Korea.
The KBO umpires are wearing masks. KBO players are getting used to a new baseball normal with multiple new rules against high fives, spitting, and licking.
KBO players must wear face masks to and from the stadium. When entering the stadium, players are funneled through a singular entrance. At the entrance is an infrared body scanner that checks the body heat of the player. After this, a team trainer also takes the players' temperature.
This strategy is highly effective in protecting the players because the team’s medical staff is immediately informed on the player’s health status.
Whenever the players want to eat, they go into their cubicles that have been set up in the food room, so the players are isolated when they eat.
New travel rules have been implemented, including the exclusive use of team buses, rather than allowing players to take public transit by themselves, as they could in the past. KBO players are being encouraged to stay in their homes or hotel rooms when they are not at the stadium.
These practices have worked quite well in containing the spread of the virus because no players have gotten COVID-19 since play resumed. There would be a three-week league shutdown if any member of a team tests positive for coronavirus at any point. These practices are to be continued until further notice.
Jamie Romak, a first baseman from London, Ontario, who plays in the KBO, had this to say about returning to Korea to play baseball:
“They did a great job (containing the spread of COVID-19) here in Korea so I wasn’t worried about that, but we didn’t know we would be in such a difficult position trying to get my family back together,” Romak said in a phone interview from Incheon, where his SK Wyverns team is based. “And that’s the reality for a lot of us foreign players in this league, dealing with our family situations right now.”
South Korea had one of the best responses to COVID-19 after having its first reported cases at the same time as the United States, in late January. South Korea responded by testing as many people as they could. This strategy worked because South Korea reported just 19 new cases of COVID-19 on May 15th. The country only has 1200 active cases, which is good considering they have a population of over 51 million.
The dramatic decrease of cases in South Korea slowly led to a re-opening of the economy and baseball. Baseball is one of South Korea’s most beloved sports. South Korea has produced MLB stars such as Shin-Soo Choo and Hyun-jin Ryu.
It would be much more difficult for Major League Baseball to follow in the footsteps of the Korean Baseball League because the United States has been hit much harder than South Korea by COVID-19. The United States has almost 90,000 deaths, whereas South Korea has only 262 deaths as of May 16th.
However, another spike in cases has been emerging in South Korea and KBO officials may soon have to re-evaluate whether or not it's safe for the league to carry on given the surrounding health conditions.
KBO officials were hoping to have fans at games by early June, but this plan is not looking too good now.
Also, the scopes of the KBO and MLB are completely different, as the KBO has 10 teams and the MLB has 30. In the KBO, there are no plane flights, because everything is relatively close by. The longest bus ride is 200 miles from Seoul to Busan, the second-largest city in South Korea. With MLB’s Arizona plan, all MLB clubs would be housed in a downtown radius and no team would be more than 60-90 minutes away from each other.
However, this plan has been met with criticism because players would have to be away from their families for the entire season. The negative reaction to the plan makes it much harder for MLB to follow in the KBO’s footsteps.
Broadcast teams remain essential as games will continue to be seen live on television in both South Korea and the United States. ESPN announced Monday it would air six games per week, one each day from Tuesday through Sunday.
With the season in South Korea resuming, a KBO player and said that the season is off to a great start and that baseball thus far has been "very comforting" and has served as a way to get away from the difficulties that we're all facing during this pandemic.