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The Joy and Anxiety of Watching KBO’s Return

Baseball is back in South Korea. But as therapeutic as it is to watch a hitter work the count again, it’s hard to escape what this may mean for an ill-advised return for MLB.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When ESPN announced on Monday that it would air live baseball from South Korea, I reacted with knee-buckling ambivalence. The return of live baseball was obviously welcome, even if it aired in the middle of the night and featured teams and players I’d never heard of. But unlike South Korea, the worst is yet to come in the United States—meaning thousands of deaths per day and tens of millions left out of work. Five days ago, a little more than an hour from my home, right-wing activists with assault weapons stormed the Michigan State Capitol in an attempt to force the state government to lift the moderate preventative measures currently in place. Rejoicing in the return of baseball felt like watching Rome burn while Nero played the fiddle 10,000 miles away and broadcast it on Twitch.

And once the appointed hour arrived—1 a.m. Eastern time—ESPN’s game of the night between NC Dinos and Samsung Lions was in a rain delay. Shortly thereafter, another KBO game was delayed due to smoke from a nearby fire. In 2020, nothing works the way it’s supposed to.

Two batters into the first game, I was watching former Phillies and Mets outfielder Aaron Altherr, now of the Dinos, fend off an avalanche of slop from Lions starter Baek Jung-hyun. I’d never heard of Baek before he took the mound, but I’ve seen hundreds of pitchers like him bounce around the game with nothing but their wits and a fastball that tops out in the high 80s. Baek poked and prodded the edges of the zone with his meager stuff like a picky eater interrogating a slice of untrustworthy-looking casserole, then eventually baited Altherr into a flyout to deep right field.

It was then that I thought of something I’d heard long ago from a therapist: Sometimes, when we go a long time without something we need, we learn to convince ourselves that we never needed it in the first place. By the time Baek toed the rubber in Daegu on Tuesday morning, I’d gone 52 days without watching a live sporting event, and breaking that streak brought an unexpected yet physically palpable sense of relief. Baseball, even if it featured unfamiliar participants in profoundly weird circumstances at a time when I would much rather have been asleep, had lost none of its emotional potency.

The game itself turned out to be a fairly unremarkable 4-0 affair. Dinos starter Drew Rucinski, a former Marlins pitcher, was excellent in six scoreless innings, and while Altherr went 0-for-4, three other Dinos hitters touched Baek up for home runs. Among the home run hitters was third baseman Park Suk-min, who booted a grounder at third base in the fourth inning but recovered to make a series of Adrián Beltré–like reflex plays late in the game. Great defense at the hot corner is one of baseball’s most thrilling spectacles in any language.

And as much as a certain strain of insomniac American baseball obsessive will no doubt get ferociously into KBO over time, watching the Dinos-Lions game as a neutral fan was an unusually relaxing experience. In a society that fetishizes productivity and polish, television production under the pandemic has taken on an endearingly campy low-rent quality. Starched and painted TV personalities have had to go without proper lighting, microphones, and makeup, and the flashy production that ESPN ordinarily features gave way to the broadcast crew doing the best they could with what they had.

ESPN broadcasters Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez struck a laudable balance of professionalism and laid-back gameness. The connection from their homes was occasionally glitchy, and Ravech’s call sometimes lagged behind the action. At one point they lost the feed on their monitors for a couple of batters, and by the ninth inning Perez briefly took over play-by-play duties when Ravech’s audio feed crapped out. It was clear that neither was an expert in the KBO, and their commentary sometimes wandered into regrettably broad clichés about bat flips, but it would’ve been unreasonable to expect expertise from a crew whose network had announced the broadcast schedule only hours before.

In this day and age, a good-natured ability to roll with the punches is all we really expect, and Ravech and Perez did so. And while neither claimed to be an expert on KBO, they brought in a series of guests who could better educate the audience. During the rain delay, they interviewed Washington Nationals slugger Eric Thames, late of the NC Dinos, about his tenure in Korea. That half-hour flew by because it just so happened that Thames, the MLB’s most famous KBO veteran, is also one of the most pleasant and charismatic players in the game. Later in the game they talked to Korean American journalist Daniel Kim, who covers the KBO. Sandwiched in between the Thames and Kim interviews, Ravech and Perez ribbed ESPN reporter Jeff Passan for wearing a jacket and tie for a web broadcast in the middle of the night, and tried to put the KBO’s reopening in the context of the American sports landscape.

The whole experience felt like 85 percent normal baseball broadcast and 15 percent that time Adam Pally and Ben Schwartz hosted a Dadaist installment of The Late Late Show in a snowbound New York City. As ESPN starts rotating in announcers Jon Sciambi, Jessica Mendoza, and Kyle Peterson—all of whom combine immense knowledge of and enthusiasm for the game with the kind of easygoing style that appeals to bleary-eyed audiences—that feeling should only increase.

But somewhere around the segment with Passan, the feeling of creeping dread came back. It would be ridiculous to watch baseball returning to South Korea and not expect MLB to poke its head around the corner relatively soon, and the substance of Passan’s appearance focused on when and how that might happen.

The ESPN broadcast had extensive coverage of the KBO’s public hygiene measures—umpires decked out in masks and gloves and the stands denuded of a normally boisterous crowd—but the differences between the South Korean and American experiences during the pandemic went undiscussed on the broadcast proper. That omission invites a dangerous conclusion: that given similar protocols, MLB could play as safely as KBO. In fact, that could not be further from the truth.

Even though COVID-19 hit the South Korean and American populations at roughly the same time, divergent societal responses have put the public on two dramatically different paths. South Korea is easing social distancing measures after a dramatic early response not only flattened the curve, but cut the daily tally of new cases to single digits. Meanwhile, the daily death toll in the United States is predicted to continue to climb to as many as 3,000 fatalities a day by the end of the month. South Korea, a country with about the same combined population as Texas and Florida, has had fewer than 300 reported COVID-19 fatalities during the entire course of the pandemic.

While Korean officials were trying to strangle this deadly outbreak in the cradle, their American counterparts dithered, dallied, and delegated. They used the disbursement of essential medial supplies as an opportunity for graft, worked to kick as many people as possible off unemployment, and weighed limits on the legal recourse of workers who contract the coronavirus while choosing to work rather than suffer from privation.

As South Korea begins to ease its restrictions, the White House’s next major action could be to mothball the task force responsible for the fig leaf of a unified public health response we have now. The United States, home to about 4 percent of the global population, has suffered nearly a third of the total reported global COVID-19 cases and about 28 percent of reported global deaths, and pretending that the pandemic has been mitigated is easier than actually mitigating it. If it’s not safe for people to attend funerals, maybe nobody will notice how quickly the graveyards are filling up.

In that case, baseball stands to become a crucial part of that pretense. So says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told a Louisville radio station last week that he’d spoken to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and said, “America needs baseball. It’s a sign of getting back to normal.” Whether things actually are back to normal—or whatever passes for normal after tens of thousands of Americans have died and tens of millions have been put out of work—seems not to matter much, if at all. Imagine the triumphal return of the New York Yankees on July 4 to a population so starved for live sports they’re staying up all night to watch baseball in South Korea. How many deaths would McConnell and his like be willing to countenance in order to achieve such a spectacle?

Even if sufficient national and local authorities give Manfred the go-ahead to reopen, either the league or the union could refuse out of concern for the safety of players and team employees, or even the general population. Players like Mike Trout and Zack Wheeler—both of whom are expecting children this summer—have already expressed opposition to proposed plans that would keep them away from their families. But there’s $10 billion worth of revenue on the line, and thanks to the KBO, there’s already a template for how MLB can operate with the artifice of safety. Ordinarily a functioning government would take such a massive public health decision out of the hands of people with such a massive interest in returning to business as usual no matter the human cost, but, well, that ship seems to have sailed.

The same morning KBO baseball appeared on ESPN, player agent Scott Boras echoed McConnell’s sentiment in a wildly irresponsible New York Times editorial. In the opening for paragraphs of his column, Boras invoked FDR’s famous letter to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that kept MLB going through World War II, the return to play after 9/11, and David Ortiz’s speech after the Boston Marathon bombings as a paint-by-numbers retelling of organized baseball’s belief in its own moral importance.

“Other nations and leagues can provide helpful models for how to accomplish a return to action and keep players safe,” Boras wrote. “Professional baseball is being played today in Taiwan and South Korea, and players have reported that they feel safe and protected in their environment. We can do it here, and for the sake of America, we should.”

No mention of the underlying governmental policies that make it possible for Taiwan and South Korea to hold baseball games without risking thousands of lives. No mention of how catastrophically disparate rates of infection and mortality are in those countries versus ours. Just the overwhelming belief that baseball is important, and if it’s being played anywhere it must be played here also.

Having KBO on television is a look into the future, and not just because South Korea is 13 time zones ahead of the eastern U.S. At its best, it’s a welcome return of an absent cultural institution loved by millions. At its worst, it’s a warning against the continued exploitation of that institution by a few powerful people who care more about appearance than substance.