A new baseball season began in South Korea on Tuesday with a crackling bat and the sound of a ball hitting a catcher’s glove that echoes across empty stadiums.
After a week-long delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, the judges wore protective masks and the cheerleaders danced under rows of unoccupied seats when professional baseball returned to the field.
At least one stadium had many faces in the stands, but they were pictures, not real people, because the fans did not enter the halls – at least not yet.
Instead, it was easy to hear the players cheering and screaming out of the dugouts. And it was a relief for fans who watched from home in a country that is now trying to slowly return to the norm that preceded COVID-19, in the face of diminishing workload.
The country’s professional football leagues will begin on Friday, also without spectators at the stadiums.
The Korean baseball organization is one of the world’s first major professional sports competitions that has returned to action in a pandemic. To do this, various preventive measures have been taken to create a safe gaming environment.
Players and coaches will have fever displays before entering the stadiums, while referees and coaches of the first and third base must wear masks during games. Players are prohibited from signing autographs or team mates with bare hands.
In addition, chewing tobacco was banned to prevent spitting, and masks and latex gloves would be required at training facilities.
Fans will not be allowed to play games until the BWC makes sure that the risk of infection is minimized. If any team member gives a positive result for coronavirus at any point in the season, the league will be closed for at least three weeks.
“I feel great,” said Cho Ki-hyun, a 65-year-old fan of SK Wyverns, who shared a mattress with three other fans at the walls of the Incheon team stadium, watching the game against a tablet located in Daejeon Hanwha Eagles. “I’m glad to just hear the sounds of a baseball game outside.”
The teams tried to create a festive atmosphere in empty stadiums.
In a game in the capital city, LG Twins defeated an rival between cities and the current champion Doosan Bears 8-2 at Jamsil Stadium, where field seats were hung with huge banners of gleeful slogans of the twins.
Gemini outfielder Kim Hyun-soo, who spent some time with the Baltimore Orioles, hit his first home league run of the season in the third inning, with two shots fired by Bears starter Raul Alcantara. When he rounded the bases, Kim extended his hand to the third-base coach Kim Che-Gul, who raised his hand but remained out of contact.
“The players just really wanted to play baseball, and we are very happy to do it,” said Kim Hyun-soo.
Wyverns imitated the home crowd in Incheon, covering their field places with rows of horizontal banners, which depicted the faces of fans in hats and masks of the team. They still lost to the Eagles 3-0, who won their first debut in 11 years with the former Detroit Tigers pitcher Warwick Saupold, who threw a full punch in two hits.
In Daegu, the city most affected by the virus, Samsung Lions used their huge scoreboard to play video messages from players, celebrities and fans, thanks to which doctors and medical personnel fought the outbreak that swept the city hospitals in late February and March and then slowed down. In recent weeks, Lions have fallen on Changwon NC Dinos 4-0 in a game that aired on ESPN.
“It would be better if they could be with us, but I’m glad that we delivered something good to the fans watching TV,” said outfielder Dinos Na Sung-boom, who went 2 to 3.
Considered one of the best players in the BWC, 30-year-old Na is a client of the American super-agent Scott Boras and claims to be in the Major League Baseball.
In addition, the Seoul-based Kiwoom Heroes defeated the owner of Kia Tigers 11-2 in Gwangju, transferring former San Francisco Giants Matt Williams slugger his first loss as a manager in the BWC.
Park Byung Ho, who had short restraints with the Minnesota Twins, fired the eighth shot for the Heroes in the eighth and used his right gloved hand to slap the hands of his first and third base coaches before switching to fist punches and elbow punches in the dugout .
Busan-based Lotte Giants defeated KT Wiz 7-2 on the road in Suwon.
The full baseball season seemed dubious in early March, when South Korea reported 500 new virus infections per day, which forced KBO to postpone the opening of the season on March 28th.
But on Tuesday, South Korea reported only three new cases, the lowest daily leap since infections rose at the end of February. Experts believe that the trend towards tightening border controls and active efforts to check and isolate virus carriers and track their contacts using medical, banking and immigration records and location information provided by the police and telecommunications companies, experts say.
Officials have begun to loosen the rules of social distance and are preparing to reopen schools, starting with high school students on May 13.
With the exception of any virus-related suspension, KBO plans to maintain a regular season schedule of 144 games. But he decided to abandon his game with the stars and reduce the first round of the playoffs from the “best of five” series to the “best of three” series.