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What The U.S. Can Learn From Korean Post-Quarantine Sports


South Korea is one of the few countries playing professional sports during the coronavirus outbreak. Today preseason baseball began with strict guidelines, such as no fans in the stadiums. Could this foreshadow what happens with U.S. baseball? Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: South Korea has been out in front of the coronavirus, limiting it with early widespread testing and quarantining. It follows that the country would be among the first to play ball. The Korean Baseball Organization, KBO, hopes today's start of exhibition games leads to a smooth opening of the regular season next month. But there'll be nothing regular about baseball in front of empty seats, where viewer excitement is confined to the broadcast booth, like during this recent intrasquad game between members of the Lotte Giants in Busan.







DAN STRAILY: It was just so quiet and boring.

GOLDMAN: In eight major league seasons, pitcher Dan Straily played in stadiums that felt empty. But his first year with Lotte will be the first time without any fans and the extra motivation they provide.

STRAILY: Even if you're on the other side and they're yelling at you, you just, like, feel, like, the energy. Somewhere deep down, it adds adrenaline to you. And that's where you just - you feed off of that.

GOLDMAN: And when it comes to energy...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Korean).

GOLDMAN: ...South Korean fans are hard to beat. Banning supporters keeps them safe, but what about those at the ballpark? The KBO's new COVID-19 rules include players having their temperatures checked twice a day; everyone not in a baseball uniform, including umpires and athletic trainers, wearing face masks and gloves. If a player shows symptoms, he'll be immediately quarantined, and they'll close the stadium where he played his most recent game. If he's positive, contact tracing will figure out others who need to be quarantined for two weeks.

Straily applauds all the rules, except the one banning spitting. That, he says, will be tough to enforce.

STRAILY: 'Cause I've never been at the baseball field and, like, thought to myself, like, OK, don't spit. It doesn't make sense. I don't know why we all do it. It's just, like, one of those things that happens.

GOLDMAN: Like it or not, South Korea is embarking on a spitless, fanless season while U.S. leagues watch and discuss possible startup scenarios of their own. Baseball's gotten a recent boost from the doctor most associated with the fight against the pandemic in this country. Anthony Fauci says baseball can happen. Yesterday on the YES Network, he said, even with spectators in the stands.


ANTHONY FAUCI: Is to limit the amount of people in a stadium and make sure you seat them in a way where they are really quite separated and maybe even wearing the facial covers than a mask.

GOLDMAN: But, Fauci says, it's more likely there'll be a version of baseball with no spectators, like the Korean model. With eyes trained on South Korea, Major League Baseball has been discussing a similar idea in Arizona, with all 30 teams playing in a sort of bubble in the Phoenix area. The NBA may be considering an approach like that in Florida. Dan Straily talks to friends in major league baseball who say they're jealous that he actually gets to play. But they're hopeful because, Straily says, even with the uncertainty of a pandemic, you can't ever think the season's over until someone tells you it's over.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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