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You're Out! No Fans — Or Spitting — As Baseball Returns To South Korea

First base umpire Lee Gye-sung (right) wears a mask and gloves as a precaution against the coronavirus during the preseason baseball game between the Doosan Bears and the LG Twins in Seoul on April 21.
Lee Jin-man
First base umpire Lee Gye-sung (right) wears a mask and gloves as a precaution against the coronavirus during the preseason baseball game between the Doosan Bears and the LG Twins in Seoul on April 21.

South Korea has been out in front of the coronavirus, limiting it with early, widespread testing and quarantining.

It follows that the country would be among the first to play ball again.

The Korean Baseball Organization hopes this week's start of preseason games leads to a smooth opening of the regular season early next month.

But there will be nothing regular about baseball in front of empty seats. One of the precautions the KBO's taking is playing games with no fans in attendance. Korean teams have experienced a little of it already in intrasquad games.

And some don't like it.

"It was so quiet and boring," says Dan Straily, an American-born pitcher with the Lotte Giants of the KBO. "I had to ask people in the front office to get some music between innings. [To] somehow try to get a little energy [in the stadium]."

In eight Major League seasons, Straily played in stadiums that felt empty. "Occasional weekday games in Oakland come to mind," he says with a laugh. But his first year with the Giants will be the first time truly without any fans, to provide that extra motivation.

"Even if you're on the other side and they're yelling at you, you just feel the energy," he says. "Somewhere deep down, it adds adrenaline to you and you feed off of that."

Will it affect performances on the field?

"We'll find out soon," Straily says. The pitcher in him adds, "my hope is it'll be a little less energy for the hitters, you know, no one to flip their bats for, so we can bring them down a notch with these empty stadiums here."

Epic bat flips are legendary in South Korean baseball; so are the fans, whose organized cheers and energy create game-long parties in the stands.

They will be missed. But banning supporters keeps them safe.

What about those at the ballpark?

The KBO'S new COVID-19 rules include: players having their temperatures checked twice a day; everyone not in a baseball uniform, including umpires and athletic trainers, wearing face masks and gloves; if a player shows symptoms, he'll be immediately quarantined and they'll close the stadium where he played his most recent game; if he tests positive for the virus, contact tracing will figure out others who need to be quarantined for two weeks.

Straily applauds all the rules, except one. A ban on spitting.

"I want someone to find me a game in history where baseball players did not spit on the field," Straily says.

But this pandemic is changing everything, including one of baseball's oldest and, pretty safe to say, most disgusting traditions. Although Straily thinks the spittle prohibition will be hard to enforce.

"I've never been to the baseball field and thought to myself, like, 'OK don't spit,' " he says. "It doesn't make sense. I don't know why we all do it, it's just like one of those things that happens."

Like it or not, South Korea is embarking on a season without spitting or fans, while U.S. leagues watch and discuss possible scenarios of their own.

Baseball has gotten a recent boost from the doctor most associated with the fight against the pandemic in this country. Anthony Fauci says baseball can happen, even with spectators in the stands.

"[You could] limit the amount of people in a stadium," he said on the Yes Network, "and make sure you seat them in a way where they are really quite separated. And maybe even wearing the facial covers, a mask."

But Fauci says it's more likely there'll be a version of baseball with no spectators, "television baseball," like the Korean model. With eyes trained on South Korea, Major League Baseball has been discussing a similar idea, including no fans, close monitoring of players with regular temperature checks, limited travel — in Arizona, where all 30 teams would play the season in a sort of bubble in the Phoenix area.

Meanwhile, in Busan, South Korea, Straily says he's grateful to be playing baseball.

"Just the fact that we get to be starting our season," he says, "show us that things are trending the right way in this country."

Straily has been talking to friends who are Major League players, and he says the situation [in the U.S.] is wearing on a lot of them.

"We're so used to routine as ballplayers, it's one of the things we thrive on — schedules and routines," he says. "To not have those, to have unknowns? That's scary."

He asks those friends what they're hearing about a Major League restart, and they say "nothing." They're just waiting with everyone else and hoping to get going.

And staying ready. All pro athletes live in a state of readiness. Their careers depend on it.

Which is why, Straily says, even with the uncertainty of a pandemic, you can't ever think the season is over. Until someone tells you it's over.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.