SEOUL—The players were warned not to chew tobacco, spit, or shake hands, and the umpires all wore face masks—the kind you see covering the nose and mouth of everyone everywhere in South Korea—as well as disposable rubber gloves. Fist-bumping was discouraged and shoulder-bumping barely tolerated.
Those rules were in force as the 10-team Korean Baseball Organization opened its delayed season in front of empty stadiums, with millions of Koreans watching on TV and the internet as this country continues its well-managed recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baseball-hungry Americans, who aren't likely to see their teams on the field until late June at the earliest, also got to watch one of the games on ESPN. The Samsung Lions took on the NC Dinos in Samsung’s home stadium in Daegu, which was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in February.
On an overcast day that began with a drizzle, which delayed the first pitch for 45 minutes, Dr. Lee Sung-koo, Daegu’s medical director, reminded everyone of what the city had endured as he threw the ceremonial first pitch wearing a face mask and gloves.
For the players, just knowing they’d be visible on American screens added a touch of excitement artificially enhanced for the benefit of TV and internet viewers by canned audio of cheering fans in packed stadiums. “No one likes the silence of empty seats,” as one of the Korean commentators reminded viewers more than once. “Otherwise the game would be too quiet, too serene.”
In the event, the excitement of appearing on ESPN was more than enough to psych up the three foreigners, including two pitchers and one position player, that each of the teams is entitled to carry on its roster. Sure, they’d all played for major league teams in the U.S., but their moments of glory were brief, marred by disappointment, interspersed by spells up and down the minor leagues.
“I’m ready for it,” said the Dinos starting pitcher, Drew Rucinski, now 31, who knocked around the pros in the U.S. for eight years, compiling four wins against four losses for the Los Angeles Angels and the Miami Marlins before signing on last year with the Dinos.
A stalwart in 2019 with nine wins versus nine losses for the fifth-place Dinos based in the industrial city of Changwon on the southeastern coast, Rucinski was pumped for the opener in the ESPN spotlight. By the time he was replaced after six innings, the Dinos led by 4-0, and three relief pitchers preserved the shutout.
Another Dinos pitcher, Mike Wright, a newcomer to the team after winning 10 and losing 12 games over five years for the Baltimore Orioles, fairly overflowed with enthusiasm at the prospect of recapturing glory days.
“Everyone’s very excited,” he told the Korean sports networks. “A lot of people are super-excited. Everyone enjoys what they are doing. I know a lot of friends are watching back home. They’re going to be very excited to see what we can do.”
What the 10 teams in the KBO manage to do is play solid professional ball on about the same level as the U.S. high minors, double A or triple A, with moments of virtuosity that evoked the game at the highest level.
For the benefit of the ESPN audience, players made difficult catches in the outfield and long throws from third base and shortstop to first after scooping up hard-hit ground balls. There was only one error when a right fielder chased a hard-hit ball to the wall only to have it pop out of his glove, enabling the Dinos to score one of their runs.
One of the better performers in the field, Tyler Saladino, who joined the Lions after nine years on American teams, including five up and down with the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago White Sox, sparkled at shortstop. He, too, was thrilled to reconnect with Americans via ESPN.
“I would like to say how much this means for all of us for ESPN to be broadcasting all this,” he said. “People are great. Everybody here is very welcoming. It seems like a great community. Everyone is enjoying it a lot.”
Players on other teams are eager for their turn to share the glory. One of them, Dan Straily, faces the challenge of reviving the Lotte Giants, who finished dead last last year.
Straily, while compiling a pretty decent record of 44 wins against 40 losses in eight years in the majors, signed on with the Lotte Giants after a dismal final year with the last-place Baltimore Orioles. On opening day in Korea, he went five and two thirds innings for the Giants, who defeated the LG Twins, 7 to 2.
All the commentary here was in Korean, but ESPN broadcasters were poised looking at satellite feeds to the U.S., ready to convey the game from play-by-play to analysis and commentary on what they saw on the field over here.
The timing, however, was a little inconvenient. It was a holiday here, designated as “Children’s Day,”a traditional holiday, which was fine for kids here but not for American viewers. Game time here was 2 in the afternoon, 1 a.m. on the U.S. east coast, 10 p.m. on the west coast. Nor is the timing going to get a lot better—most Korean games begin at 6:30 p.m., 5:30 a.m. in the eastern U.S., 2:30 a.m. in the west.
That inconvenience was not of uppermost concern, however. The league commissioner, Chung Un-chan, a former prime minister, caught the spirit in a statement at KBO headquarters here. “During this unprecedented and difficult time,” he said. “I hope the KBO League can bring consolation to the communities and provide guidelines to the world of sports.”
All that was missing from the opening game on ESPN was a Korean fan favorite: girls dancing as cheerleaders on special pavilions in the lower stands on either side of the infield. They typically carry on in fetching K-pop style, often drawing wide followings.
The Lions did retain their mascots—cute “lions and lionesses” who pranced in front of the Samsung dugout and occasionally ventured into the empty stands. Above them hung a great banner reading, in Korean, “Dear Fans, We Miss You, We Want to See You Soon.” And, since the Samsung empire does own the stadium and the Lions, another banner proclaimed, in equally big letters, “Galaxy S20,” the latest Samsung smartphone.