Korea Baseball Organization opens season as virus cases in South Korea continue to decline

SK Wyverns starter Nick Kingham pitches against the Hanwha Eagles during the first day of the KBO regular season on Tuesday in Incheon, South Korea.

SEOUL – Cheerleaders danced beneath rows of empty seats and umpires wore protective masks as a new baseball season began in South Korea.
After a weeks-long delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, a hushed atmosphere allowed sounds like the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt and the crack of bats connecting on singles or doubles to echo around the stadium.
There were faces in the stands at a game on Tuesday — pictures placed in the seats because fans aren't allowed into the venues, at least for now.
Instead, it was easy to hear players cheering and shouting from dugouts. It was also a relief to fans watching from home in a country that’s now attempting a slow return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy amid a waning caseload.
The country’s professional soccer leagues will kick off Friday, also without spectators in the stadiums.
As one of the world’s first major professional sports leagues to return to action amid the pandemic, the Korea Baseball Organization has employed various preventive measures aimed at creating safe playing environments.
Players and coaches will go through fever screenings before entering stadiums, while umpires and first- and third-base coaches must wear masks during games. Players are prohibited from high-fiving teammates or signing autographs. Chewing tobacco was banned to prevent spitting. Masks and latex gloves will be required at training facilities.
Fans will be barred from games until the KBO is convinced the risk of infections has been minimized. If any member of a team tests positive for the coronavirus at any point during the season, the league will be shut down for at least three weeks.
On Tuesday, teams tried to create a festive atmosphere in the empty stadiums.
In a game in the capital, the Seoul-based LG Twins opened up against the Doosan Bears, their crosstown rivals and the defending champions, at Jamsil Stadium, where the outfield seats were decked out with huge banners of the Twins’ cheering slogans.
At Incheon, the SK Wyverns imitated a home crowd by covering their outfield seats with rows of horizontal banners showing the faces of fans wearing Wyverns caps and masks as they hosted the Daejeon-based Hanwha Eagles.
A full season of baseball seemed doubtful in early March, when South Korea was reporting around 500 new virus infections a day, forcing the KBO to postpone its opening day, which had been scheduled for March 28.
But South Korea reported just three new cases on Tuesday, its lowest daily total since infections surged in late February. Experts credit the downward trend to tightened border controls and active efforts to test and isolate virus carriers and trace their contacts, using medical, banking and immigration records and location information provided by police and telecommunications companies.
Officials have started relaxing social distancing guidelines and are preparing to reopen schools, starting with high-school seniors on May 13.
Barring any virus-related suspension, the KBO plans to maintain a 144-game regular season schedule. But it decided to scrap its all-star game and shorten the first round of the playoffs from a best-of-five to a best-of-three series.
In the U.S., where MLB has yet to start, six KBO games per week will be aired on ESPN.