There was no white noise. That was one of the first things Tyler Wilson noticed when he took the mound April 27 for his first exhibition start of the 2020 Korea Baseball Organization season. He could hear his spikes shuffling in the dirt, the give of the rubber as he pushed off from the mound. The murmur of the batter in the box was sharp, as were the conversations in the dugout. Usually, all of these sounds would be drowned out by the din of the crowd in the 16,000-plus capacity Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, where Wilson’s LG Twins were facing the Kiwoom Heroes.
“When I pitched, I could hear so many new sounds,” he says. “You hear everything so clearly. … In between innings feels strange because it’s so quiet, you’re so aware of everything.”
Playing to an empty stadium is unsettling in any context. The lulls between action become more pronounced. Every motion is heightened, every noise is amplified. But in the KBO, subtracting the crowd strips the league of its ethos. The 10-team, 38-year-old league is sometimes known to international audiences by its bat flips; the KBO’s real defining characteristic is its fans, who regularly spend all game on their feet, regardless of the score.
Jared Hoying is a chatty outfielder who often calls out words of encouragement to his Hanwha Eagles teammates. His home stadium, in Daejeon, South Korea, is the smallest in the league, with a capacity of 13,000, and when the crowd is at full tilt, “it’s like a soccer crowd thrown into a little baseball stadium,” he says. His usual quips from the outfield are no longer muffled by the noise of the fans, and now socially distanced stuffed animals fill every other seat behind home plate. The cheerleaders are still there, as is a drummer, but it’s no replacement for the usual clamor of game day.
“That’s the best part about the whole league … the fans, the interaction,” Hoying says. “And not having that aspect of it [now] ... is whewwww, it’s wild.”
Opening the 2020 season on May 5 to empty stadiums was a necessary sacrifice for the KBO. The organization became one of the first major sports leagues in the world to resume competition amid the global coronavirus pandemic, and when it emerged, oasis-like, onto late-night ESPN broadcasts in early May, it sated parched American sports fans—the first game drew in about 173,000 viewers at 1 a.m. ET—and incited a swell of optimism for the return of sports in any shape or form. Ten days later, MLB sent its players a proposal aiming to restart spring training as early as mid-June and begin the regular season in early July. (The league and the players union are currently negotiating the economic proposal for a shortened 2020 season, but appear to have hit an impasse.) It’s tempting to envision the cloying symbolism of a first pitch timed for Independence Day weekend, the country reopening with maskless barbecues and crowds clustered in stadium parking lots, sipping Bud Light and marveling at how a novel coronavirus upended modern society in the first half of 2020. But much like one couldn’t compare the talent level of MLB (an international, high-profile league in a country of 328 million) and the KBO (which allows just three foreign players per roster in a nation of 51 million) the status of the pandemic in the United States is not analogous to the current situation in South Korea, according to public health experts.
Hoying, Wilson, and the other foreign players of the KBO experienced firsthand the rigorous, concentrated national approach that’s necessary to bring baseball back; their spring included tracking apps, strictly enforced quarantine, and months apart from their spouses and children. But they’ve returned to their jobs—a step toward pre–COVID-19 normalcy that’s still unthinkable for millions of Americans. In three months, South Korea went from the second-highest number of cases in the world and a suddenly canceled spring training to restarting a professional sports league played in home stadiums. The country effectively identified, traced, and isolated the virus, and proved that bringing back sports is less about when a league decides to restart, and more about what a country does in the meantime. It doesn’t matter how far down the line a league schedules the first pitch or the first snap. It matters what happens in the months between.
Wilson joined the LG Twins in 2018 after bouncing between the Norfolk Tides and the Baltimore Orioles in the three seasons prior. Spring training this year took him first to Sydney, Australia, in late January, shortly after the United States and South Korea both reported their first cases of the coronavirus on January 20. On February 21, the team moved to complete the last stretch of training, meant to go until March 19, in Okinawa, Japan. But by February 24, South Korea trailed just China for the globe’s highest number of cases by country. Concern over the rising case numbers in South Korea prompted Japan to announce mandatory 14-day quarantines for visitors from the country. Seoul countered with a suspension of a visa-waiver arrangement for Japanese visitors.
The league canceled all preseason games in the last week of February, and Wilson left for the U.S. on March 7. He flew back to Philadelphia, where his wife, Chelsea, was staying with their 20-month-old twin sons. Across the globe, similar situations played out with KBO teams—South Korean players returned to their country, and foreign-born players traveled to their offseason homes, under the stipulation that they be ready to return immediately when the league deemed it safe to restart. Hoying was training with the Eagles in Arizona, and went to be with his family in Ohio. (Several KBO teams travel to Arizona and Florida for spring training.) His teammate Warwick Saupold, a pitcher in his second year in the KBO, flew home to Australia, where the number of confirmed cases sat at less than 100 in the first week of March.
“We all went home and kind of hunkered down,” Hoying says. “But then it started getting flip-flopped, worse in the States, and the team was worried we weren’t going to be able to get into the country.”
By March 21, the weekend when foreign-born players returned to Seoul, South Korea had 8,799 cases and 102 deaths. The United States had 24,418cases and 374 deaths.
Hoying’s wife and two young daughters stayed behind in Fort Laramie, Ohio, even though they’d usually spend the spring with him; his youngest daughter was born in South Korea. For the past two years, Wilson’s wife and children have lived in Seoul with him during the season as well. Now he was faced with a previously unthinkable logistical quandary: Where was safest for his family during a global pandemic?
“I had to make a decision—do I take my family? Do I go by myself?” Wilson says. “This is uncharted waters.”
There were too many unknowns at the time, he says. It wasn’t clear which country would handle COVID-19 more effectively; it wasn’t clear what life would be like in Seoul when they arrived. Chelsea and the twins stayed back, and when Wilson did land, he—as well as the other returning foreign-born players—underwent immediate testing, followed by a mandatory 14-day quarantine. They went directly from the airport, to the nose swab (a “skull scrape” is how Wilson described it), to two-week isolations—a strict, contactless period that was more austere than any stay-at-home order in the United States.
During the self-quarantine, members of the LG Twins organization delivered groceries to Wilson. He cooked breakfast and lunch each day, and for dinner, he ordered from a meal-delivery service similar to UberEats. Hoying’s team and translator picked up meals and groceries for him and left the packages at the door. Soon after landing, each player downloaded an app that required them to consent to allowing it to access their location at all times, effectively ensuring they wouldn’t break the self-quarantine. The app listed four symptoms—fever, dizziness, shortness of breath, and sore throat—and required the returning players to either check yes or no for each symptom once in a 24-hour span.
When Wilson first returned to the U.S., the plan had been to meet up with his family in Philadelphia then travel to the University of Virginia, where he and Chelsea met as athletes, playing baseball and basketball, respectively. But UVA shut down the sports facilities soon after he returned, and by the date of his flight back to South Korea, he had lost valuable training time and was now attempting to fulfill his usual preseason regimen in a small apartment.
“The initial quarantine was incredibly challenging from a preseason training standpoint,” Wilson says. “I had to get creative with new ways to get workouts in and, more importantly, find a way to keep my arm in shape.” He improvised by “playing catch” with a mattress from 2 feet away and using over- and underload balls. There wasn’t much room to focus on details, but it was enough to make sure he didn’t regress in the two weeks indoors.
By the time Wilson and Hoying emerged from quarantine in early April, the shifts in daily life in South Korea—and for their families at home—were seismic. The United States was locked down under piecemeal directives by state, and even county, and South Korea was tentatively returning to normal. There were shoppers at the mall under Wilson’s apartment, and thermal scanners at the entrance to shops and restaurants. By April 21, the first day of exhibition games, the number of active cases in South Korea was down to 2,233, with 237 deaths; in the U.S., there were 693,408 active cases and 45,536 deaths.
The United States is still struggling to figure out how to flatten the curve without suffocating the economy. South Korea has not only flattened its curve, it has crushed it, says Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Oxford College of Emory University.
“If the U.S. flattens the curves into a mesa, South Korea flattened it into a pancake,” he says. “South Korea can do what they’re doing and bring back the KBO the way that they are because they are reaping the benefits of what they sowed weeks ago, in terms of fast, aggressive actions.”
The graph of the United States’ confirmed new cases represents a plateau with jagged edges, with crests showing dates when more than 30,000 new cases were reported in one day. South Korea’s graph peaks shortly after KBO spring training was suspended, but then trails off. After March 21, there were only six days when the country reported more than 100 new cases.
On the day of Wilson’s first exhibition pitch, just 10 new cases were reported. South Korea’s population is roughly one-sixth that of the U.S.’s, but on that same day, the U.S. reported about 23,000 cases.
The nation’s rigorous, successful handling of COVID-19 comes down to three factors, according to Daniel Kim, a journalist covering the KBO who lives in Seoul. When the outbreak first began in China, Kim says, South Korea’s proximity meant the country immediately attuned to what was unfolding to the west—the flight from Jeju International, the second-largest airport in South Korea, to the Wuhan airport takes less than two hours. While most Americans still viewed the virus as a far-off, transoceanic threat, South Koreans were well aware that an epidemic was outside their door.
Once the virus reached the country, it spread quickly, and the government responded in kind, imposing contact tracing and isolation solutions honed during previous coronavirus epidemics—the second major factor in South Korea’s success, Kim says. After the 2015 MERS outbreak, the country revised the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, an extensive list of guidelines that, quite simply, work to prevent what’s happening now in the United States.
Under the act, a positive test immediately leads to a review of the individual’s whereabouts, corroborated by CCTV and credit-card information. The government uses cellphone data and travel and medical records to track a citizen’s movements leading up to their diagnosis, then once a “patient route” is determined, texts the information to every phone within 3.1 miles. Hoying’s phone dings with emergency alerts whenever there’s an outbreak or case nearby, he says. Using government-mined data to broadcast individual travel and enforcing mandatory confinement requires a community commitment, and a sacrifice of privacy, that would be almost unthinkable stateside; hundreds are protesting basic stay-at-home orders across the U.S.
“These are all privacy issues—I don’t think such a thing is doable back in the States,” Kim says. “But they basically said public health is more important than personal privacy. … That was the decision that the government made, and were able to change the laws back in 2015. The law was prepared for times like this.”
Mask-wearing is more normalized, Kim says, because of the MERS outbreak and the air pollution, and walking outside with one has come to be as natural as remembering to put on a pair of socks. Korean culture places a great emphasis on respect for elders—age is the second question one might get in a new interaction, after one’s name. This regard for authority is another reason South Korean has seen a nationwide buy-in, along with a sense of cultural responsibility.
“In times like this, that culture helps ... you just follow the orders,” he says. “Koreans don’t want to have a negative impact on others. There’s a sense of responsibility to be within yourself and make sure that you don’t bother people around you.”
Conversations with Wilson, Hoying, and Saupold about the KBO all led back to one thing: the fans. Their in-game experiences with the league rival any other playing atmosphere the trio has experienced, whether it be MLB or Division I competition. A regular-season, low-stakes MLB contest is often marked by a contended mellowness. There’s a certain joy in enjoying a game without high investment, in watching the action just for the sake of having something to watch, and not being tied to every single move as a major, franchise-defining play.
That’s not the mind-set in the KBO. Base hits in a double-digit rout get the level of enthusiasm often reserved for walk-off home runs in the States. A team can be down by 10, but the crowd will still be standing until the final out.
Broadcasting the games on ESPN to a new audience without the packed stadiums is like presenting a sales pitch without your kicker, Wilson says.
“I absolutely love it,” he says. “You feed off of it. Those days when you feel a little tired, or worn down, the fans are in it. You get a lot of energy from them.”
Saupold remembers a game last year. He was sitting in the dugout with the Eagles down by 10 in the eighth inning, and the crowd energy showed no signs of waning. “It’s never a dull moment,” says Saupold, who pitched for the Detroit Tigers as well as the Perth Heat of the Australian Baseball League. “Every game feels like a playoff game. They all bring so much energy and it does make baseball a lot more fun.”
The only rooting interest to rival baseball in South Korea is the national soccer team during the World Cup, Kim says. But there’s nothing that comes close to the KBO.
“Koreans like to have results right away and move on to the next set of games,” Kim says. A set number of outs breaks one game into “27 mini games, all lined up,” Kim says. “The flow of the game fits in culturally well with Koreans.”
It’s also a release, Kim says. He worked for the New York Mets from 1998 to 2004, including two years as an interpreter, and has been to all of the major league stadiums as well as numerous All-Star Games. The passion among Korean fans is deeper, he says, than anything he’s witnessed in a ballpark in the States.
“In many other aspects of Korean lives, you’re supposed to suppress your feelings,” he says. “ … You’re not supposed to say anything controversial. There’s no right output to get your energy out, you’re supposed to just be one of many, so I think when they come to baseball stadiums, they just let everything out. I think that’s one of the deeper reasons why Korean fans, when they come to the stadium, they’re so loud and they’re so passionate about baseball.”
Fans are encouraged to channel the emotions of everyday life—rage, joy, disappointment—to a singular cause, spurred on by cheerleaders. Wilson compares it to college sports fandom. There is less focus on superstar names, and more of a kinship to the larger cause. The buy-in to the local team, in some ways, parallels the buy-in to the country’s COVID-19 containment.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Wilson says. “The engagement is on a different level, the accessibility of players is on a different level.”
You could hear a pin drop in the early exhibition games, Hoying says.
His typical outfield repartees are typical “baseball-type talk”: “hell yeah, nice play,” “oh yeah, you’re toast,” “oh yeah, he’s gone,” and now they’re eerily broadcast to the entire stadium. Hoying says the silence has made players more hesitant to talk in the dugout, fearful that something can be picked up by the opponent or a television crew. Kim noticed how conversations all around the venue became more hushed.
After two weeks of exhibitions, most of the players, staff, and usual media had grown accustomed to the eerie stadium silence and the idiosyncrasies of baseball without fans by Opening Day. They’d also adjusted to the new reality of playing sports with the constant threat of a highly transmissible virus: masks, temperature checks, no spitting, and silence. The oddest addition was dozens of media—from other countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—as outlets sent their Seoul correspondents to cover one of the only organized games worldwide.
The KBO has made an effort to ease the adjustment for the staff and players. Cardboard cutouts of fans sit in the empty seats, and viewers are projected onto the Jumbotron via video chat. The cheer masters are there to lead the cheerleaders through each batter’s walk-up song, quick jingles that are set to popular songs and accompanied by choreographed dances usually performed by the full crowd.
The first few games were fine in terms of energy, Hoying said. Everyone was excited to be back playing competitive baseball. But that initial surge is slowly burning out. It’s a completely different challenge than anything he’s faced in the past.
“Baseball is hard enough mentally,” he says. “The game is based around failure. We have all learned to deal with failure in different ways … as a ball player, it’s amazing what a crowd chanting your name can do for you mentally.”
The current KBO schedule will have games running until October 18, with six matchups a week, and no All-Star break. There are still stringent restrictions on international travel into the country; Saupold’s fiancée usually comes out multiple times during a season, but he’s realized he may not be able to see her until the fall. Hoying’s and Wilson’s families are still in the States. Hoying’s wife and two young daughters are set to travel to South Korea at the end of May. Wilson’s family is due to fly out the first week of June, but any entrants to the country still have to quarantine for 14 days, and if they’re not a Korean citizen or dependant on a foreigner with a Korean work visa, they are required to stay in government-arranged housing for the two weeks, at costs of up to $100 per person, per day. So a tentative plan includes Chelsea’s father flying to Seoul with her and the twins, then staying in the airport overnight before immediately heading back to the U.S.
“Chelsea and the boys will arrive and spend 14 days in an apartment separate from me—I will not be able to see them,” Wilson wrote in an email about his family’s plans. “Then we will be able to finally be reunited and start life together again, almost three months since I last saw them.”
By then, the season will still be relatively young. It’s too soon to know how much the absence of a cheering crowd will affect play or morale, or how the shortened spring training and condensed schedule may affect the quality of play, or the health of players. The KBO is a much thinner league than MLB. There is no deep reserve of minor league talent waiting to step up in the event of injuries, and in less than a month of play, teams are already seeing the impact of a shortened spring training.
The thick of summer, when the weeks fall into a humid rhythm of back-to-back-to-back games and pitches blur together, will likely test players who are used to standing, singing fans for every batter.
“We aren’t yet into the dog days of grinding through when you’re exhausted,” Wilson says. “Those are the games when the fans really are a huge pick-me-up when you’re searching for a little extra something.”
Twenty games in, Wilson’s LG Twins are second in the league at 14-6. Wilson’s first win of the season was a Tuesday game at Hoying and Saupold’s Eagles; he allowed two hits with three strikeouts (including Hoying) in six innings. The league has, thus far, not had a single player or staffer test positive for the coronavirus, which would shut down games for three weeks for the entire KBO.
“Life seems normal over here,” Wilson said days before the regular season began. “Outside of talking about it all the time and baseball.”
Saupold realizes how lucky—and bizarre—it is for him to be playing sports while the vast majority of professional athletes have their seasons put on hold. As a sports fan himself, he turned to the Australian Football League as a comfort when he was lonely in his first spring in South Korea. He can commiserate with American fans missing their usual outlets, and has also kept in touch with former teammates in the States who are facing down the potential of losing a year of competition, a devastating blow for minor league players looking to break through to the next level.
“They could lose a whole year of baseball,” Saupold says. “You’re pretty much a year on the back burner, a year from trying to get to your dream, get to the major leagues. It’s a very tough spot.”
But there’s a risk in jumping to ease up on social distancing restrictions too quickly, even if it’s only to bring players together for training. Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball continued exhibition games in March until three players on one team tested positive; now, the league is eyeing a tentative June start after pushing back the regular season twice. While no player in MLB has tested positive, there were seven known NBA players with the virus within a week of the season’s suspension.
It’s going to be difficult to bring sports back in the U.S. safely at the current level of infection in the country, Binney says. It’s not about how long into the pandemic a country is, but about how it’s meeting criteria in terms of bringing down case numbers, identifying new cases, and isolating those cases. Meeting that criteria means staying tough on the virus—now, and moving forward.
“If you take your foot off the gas, too soon or too much, you can just roll down the hill and end up right back where you started,” Binney says. “And then even if you did bring sports back, you lost it again, and nobody wants that.”
One could easily watch the South Korean players undergoing quick temperature checks, distancing themselves in the dugout, and playing under the watchful eye of masked umpires, and figure: Why not us, why not now? To the TV spectator at home, a crowd seems like a small thing to give up to get games back. But take out the fans, and add up the rosters, staff, trainers, broadcasters, and necessary stadium personnel, and groups of up to 100 people would still be needed to run just one baseball game. That’s significantly more than the limit of 10 people recommended by everyone from the World Health Organization to President Trump (at one point). And based on data, America isn’t ready for that yet.
“The message people should be taking is not, ‘Look, the KBO is restarting, we should do what they’re doing and restart MLB,’” Binney says. “The message should be—because South Korea got cases down to a very low level, the KBO was able to start, wouldn’t that be cool?”
Herd immunity is frequently tossed around as a justification to filling stadiums as soon as the fall without a vaccine. But for this strain of the coronavirus, current hypotheticals about immunity are based more on wishful thinking than actual scientific evidence.
“The important thing to remember here is that we just learned about this virus four months ago,” says Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor in infectious diseases at Baylor University. “The amount of scientific knowledge we’ve gained about it is incredible … but there is so much we don’t know. And so many of those really salient points are going to dictate the safety of having group activities.”
It’s impractical to make assumptions about how COVID-19 can affect a team’s schedule given the virus has been around for less than the length of what would have been the major league season so far.
It’s easier for South Korea to restart a national league given the country’s unified approach and geographical size—players travel to every away game by bus. The United States’ overarching response to the virus at the moment is fractured, at times split as narrowly as county-by-county policies. But American sports leagues are national organizations, and allowing them to proceed as close to normally as possible, with precautions in place to protect everyone from starters to maintenance staff, requires a unified approach, Binney says.
Baseball in South Korea, despite its safe return, is still far from normal. Plans for an early June reconsideration of fan attendance will likely be reevaluated after a spike in infections stirred up fears about a potential second wave. On May 10, 34 new cases were reported in one day, likely tied to one man who tested positive after attending five nightclubs and bars. And on May 28, 79 new cases—the highest reported in almost eight weeks—were announced, mostly tied to an e-commerce company. Hoying is hankering for the fans to return soon; entering Friday, the Hanwha Eagles were nine of 10 teams in the standings at 7-14, with a five-game losing streak, including back-to-back losses at home to Wilson’s LG Twins, and two defeats with double-digit runs this season. When a player’s mental and physical resources are drained, there are no reserves to tap into but their own.
“Seeing a crowd yelling in pure joy brings so much happiness and joy for myself … makes you feel almost invincible out there,” he says. “Now, without that element I’ve gotten used to over the years, it’s really hard to find something to get that edge that I have been talking about.”
Hoying’s life is likely closer to routine than the vast majority of his peers or his countrymen. But there are reminders of the lingering effects of COVID-19 in every inning. People pay money to cram into inflexible plastic seats hundreds of yards removed from on-field action to be part of a raucous crowd, to high-five strangers, to take part in the anonymous exaltation of joining a larger, singular cause. Losing that collective experience not only distances fan bases from the team, but removes an intrinsic aspect of the player experience. The impact of the virus is seen most clearly in what it has taken away.