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Pro baseball gets underway in South Korea -- no crowds, no spitting

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Pro baseball gets underway in South Korea -- no crowds, no spitting
Lee Seong-gu, head of the Daegu Medical Association, throws out the first pitch at the Opening Day KBO game between the Samsung Lions and the NC Dinos on Tuesday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Samsung Lions

SEOUL, May 5 (UPI) -- Baseball fans in South Korea got their first taste of live action on Tuesday as the Korean Baseball Organization kicked off its 2020 season and sports-starved audiences around the world are going along for the ride.

With South Korea successfully bending the curve of new COVID-19 cases, the country decided to carry on with a full 144-game KBO season, which was originally scheduled to begin March 28.

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All 10 KBO teams were in action on Tuesday's opening day, but health precautions were in place. Games were played in front of empty stands, with some seats carrying banners or pictures of fans, while umpires and first- and third-base coaches wore protective masks.

The players went without face coverings, but fist- and elbow bumps were the norm instead of high-fives. Chewing tobacco and spitting are not permitted, nor is signing autographs. One staple of live Korean baseball was still in place, however: the cheerleaders, who performed choreographed routines to K-pop songs or team anthems alongside costumed mascots.

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Foreign broadcasters, including ESPN, carried the action live. The U.S. sports network, which inked a contract to televise KBO games on the eve of the new season, broadcast the game between the Samsung Lions and NC Dinos at 1 a.m. EDT.

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For local fans, the season couldn't have come soon enough.

"I've been counting down the days for the opening game," said Lee Seul, a 23-year-old fan of the Kia Tigers. "I felt so empty during the offseason because I couldn't watch any games. I am very thrilled the KBO games have started because I think it will rejuvenate daily life. People are tired of only going back and forth between work and home because of social distancing and the coronavirus."

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However, Lee acknowledged it was a bit strange seeing a game televised from an empty stadium, especially because fan participation is a major element of Korean baseball games. Along with cheerleaders, fan-led rally songs and choreographed chants are part of the high-energy, high-tech atmosphere, while the game is played with a flair that includes some of the world's most spectacular bat flips.

"A quiet stadium seems strange," Lee said. "I'm worried that the morale will go down for the players because they're used to the enthusiastic cheers of KBO fans."

It has not been announced when stadiums will start admitting crowds.

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South Koreans are not the only ones excited for the return of baseball. An international spotlight is shining on the KBO as one of the only major professional sports leagues in action, with global news coverage and social media engagement buzzing about the start of the season.

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Los Angeles Dodgers superstar right fielder Mookie Betts took to Twitter with a video welcoming the start of the KBO season and introducing several of the league's star players, such as Dinos catcher Yang Eui-ji and shortstop Kim Ha-seong of the Kiwoom Heroes.


Oh Joo-seung, who works in the analytics department of the Samsung Lions, a team based in the southeastern city of Daegu, said the global interest was slightly surreal.

"Everyone is quite surprised and amazed" at the attention], Oh said. "The topic of the day was the video clip where Mookie Betts was introducing the KBO. The whole team almost thought it was some type of prank."

Oh said that he felt international fans would enjoy the overall South Korean baseball experience.

"About the baseball culture, such as the bat flips and the cheers, I think many will find it surprising and interesting," he said.

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In Daegu, which was the city hit hardest by the COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea, the opening pitch was thrown out by Lee Seong-gu, head of the Daegu Medical Association, and video tributes from players and celebrities thanked doctors, nurses and medical staff.

Other games on opening day included a matchup between the defending champion Doosan Bears and the LG Twins, both Seoul-based teams, while in nearby Incheon the SK Wyverns played the Hanwha Eagles. Rounding out the action were the Kia Tigers facing the Kiwoom Heroes and the Lotte Giants battling the KT Wiz.

The live games were a testament to South Korea's adroit response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It was the first country after China to see widespread local transmission of the coronavirus but officials managed to dramatically flatten the curve of new cases through early and aggressive testing and tracing.

On Tuesday the country announced no new local infections for the second day in a row. The government is beginning a new phase of relaxed social distancing rules this week and will be reopening schools next week. South Korea's professional soccer league will start on Friday, also without an audience.

American sports fans will be able to catch one KBO game per day on ESPN, generally on ESPN2 and on the ESPN App, according to a network press release. Live start times range from 1 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. EDT and the network will feature game highlights on its news and information programs.

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KBO games will also be broadcast by Japan's SPOZONE, the league announced.

KBO commissioner Chung Un-chan said he hoped the games would bring comfort to fans and help set a standard for other sports leagues to follow in opening up.

"During this unprecedented and difficult time, I hope the KBO League can bring consolation to the communities and provide guidelines to the world of sports," Chung said in the ESPN press release. "I am pleased that the KBO League can be introduced globally and hope this can be an opportunity for the development of our league and the sport."

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