Exhibition games begin Tuesday — in South Korea.
There will be no spectators. Umpires will be wearing masks. Players will have their temperatures taken as they enter the stadiums. There even are supposed to be rules forbidding spitting and licking fingers.
But the third-best league in the world after MLB and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball will take a huge step toward starting a regular season — the hope is in the first week of May — with all 10 teams graduating from intrasquad games to contests against other teams for the first time since play was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s exciting to be practicing all this time and now playing someone else is a great feeling,” said Casey Kelly, entering his second year with the LG Twins. “Knowing that the season could start soon is also really exciting.”
South Korea has had among the world’s best responses to the coronavirus after having its first reported cases at about the same time as the United States, in late January. The country responded with a massive testing and contact-tracing campaign and on Sunday reported just eight new cases of the virus, the first time in single digits since Feb. 18, according to The Associated Press.
That has slowly led to a re-opening of businesses, including baseball, which is among the most popular sports in the country, producing star major leagues such as Shin-Soo Choo and Hyun-jin Ryu.
“For the most part people here are living a relatively normal life,” said Hank Conger, in his first year as the catching coach for the Lotte Giants.
Kelly and Conger are both former first-round picks in the majors. Both spoke by phone Monday evening from Korea (which is 13 hours ahead of New York). On Tuesday Kelly’s Twins were to play the Doosan Bears in the stadium they share in Seoul. Conger’s Giants were to bus to play the NC Dinos in Changwon.
Both said Tuesday also was important because officials from each team and the league were to hold a meeting with the expectation that an actual start date for a season — maybe the full 144-game schedule — will be announced. Taiwan’s five-team Chinese Professional Baseball League already is underway.
“All of us here have literally been on our toes every single day, waiting to hear any new news,” said Conger, who played for the Angels, Astros and Rays in a seven-year career that ended in 2016.