SEOUL — At least the game sounded the same.
The leathery pop of a strike into the catcher’s mitt was no different than before. A solid hit to center field still had that satisfying clap.
But little else was familiar Tuesday as South Korea’s professional baseball league began play in the sports-starved season of covid-19. There were no fans — although there were cheerleaders, all wearing masks, dancing to 25,000 empty seats in Seoul’s Jamsil stadium.
At one Opening Day game, KT Wiz hosting the Lotte Giants, the first “pitch” was not thrown at all. It was walked to home plate by a 9-year-old boy inside a plastic balloon decorated with the seams of a baseball. It was quickly dubbed the first “socially distant first pitch.”
The coronavirus pandemic has brought silence to sports stadiums around the world, including Major League Baseball in the United States. Fans eager for a sports fix have dredged up past games to re-watch or tried their best to entertain themselves with oddities such as play-by-play announcers narrating real life such as pedestrians crossing a street.
So South Korea’s decision to play ball is giving some unusual transpacific attention. ESPN plans to broadcast Korean Baseball Organization games at least six days per week starting Tuesday. Last month, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball association that the start of the Japanese baseball season will not take pace until at least June.
Baseball in South Korea is also a symbol of its aggressive health policies — including widespread testing and coronavirus contact tracing — that have managed to flatten the covid-19 curve without resorting to full-scale lockdowns. South Korea reported zero domestic case of the coronavirus for a second consecutive day on Tuesday.
Still, nothing in South Korea’s baseball is untouched by the virus. The season started five weeks late. Players are subject to a regime of daily temperature checks — from waking in the morning and before leaving for the stadium.
A great catch or home run will not be followed with high-fives or handshakes. Such physical contact among players are strictly banned (except to tag a player out). No spitting is allowed in games.
Umpires and coaches are required to wear face masks and sanitary gloves in the stadium. If the league sees a coronavirus outbreak among the players, the KBO could suspend the season depending on the size of the outbreak.
“I reaffirmed how the covid-19 prevention measures are meticulously followed at the baseball stadium,” said Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon during his visit to Jamsil Stadium days before the start of the new season.
He voiced hopes for “early return of the audience” and suggested their gradual admittance depending on the coronavirus situation in the country.
“I hope the start of professional baseball could revitalize the stagnant economy and present people with confidence and energy,” Park added.
For the moment, however, there’s a whole lot of silence at the games.
Korean baseball stadiums are usually filled with incessant chants and fan singalongs that go hand in hand with cheerleaders trying spur the mood. On Tuesday’s Opening Day games, videos of fans watching the games on TV were shown on the scoreboard.
KBO commissioner Chung Un-chan marked the opening of the new season by crediting it to “medical workers at the forefront of covid-19 control” and “people of our country who thoroughly followed infection control guidelines.”
More sports games will make a return in South Korea amid virus slowdown in the country. The K-League will begin soccer matches Friday. Next week: women’s professional golf gets underway.