The morning after he arrived on the other side of the world, Ben Lively got a cotton swab down his throat, a Q-Tip up his nose, and orders to self-isolate for two weeks in a downtown apartment from which he did not dare escape for fear of deportation.
That’s how South Korea succeeded in getting baseball back.
The opening of the Korean Baseball Organization’s season this week -- albeit in empty ballparks, at least for the time being -- is salvation for fans who have been deprived of live sporting events since the middle of March. It’s also a boon to ESPN, which reached an agreement to televise six KBO games per week in the United States.
But don’t mistake the KBO’s reemergence in 10 cities in South Korea for a sign that Major League Baseball is getting close to returning.
Let there be no doubt of the unanimity within MLB about wanting to play this year. Owners and players agree that a partial season is better than no season, even if it must be played without fans in the seats, which explains why league officials have spent seven weeks brainstorming concepts for how, where, and even when teams might be able to take the field again.
But the KBO isn’t back in action because of any greater desire to play or more creativity in drawing up a workable schedule. It’s back because South Korea reported just three new COVID-19 cases Monday and two Tuesday. The United States had 22,300 new cases Monday and 19,138 Tuesday, a contrast that couldn’t be any more stark if both countries hadn’t reported their first case of coronavirus on the same day in January.
“They got it pretty under wraps here,” Lively, a former Phillies pitcher, said by phone last month from South Korea, where he’s playing for the KBO’s Samsung Lions. “We have to wear a mask everywhere. There’s hand sanitizer everywhere. When we walk into the field, they have body thermal machines. You have to stop in front of that. They look at it. Then they take your temperature. They make you hit the hand sanitizer, and then you can go in the locker room. It’s literally just our team and our coaches. No one’s allowed in. I feel like it’s pretty clean for that reason.”
If anything, the KBO’s return represents a resounding triumph over the virus. Perhaps South Korea’s success can be traced back five years to its experience with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak. Or maybe it’s greater acceptance in a country of 51 million people of sacrificing personal liberties for overall public health. For example, South Korea uses cell phones to trace positive tests and alert those who live in close proximity.
“You hate to make cultural generalizations, but when you go to a sporting event in [South Korea], you see the orderliness of the population,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “Frankly, Americans are different. I think that’s part of the issue, and it makes it harder on our end. That’s part of the recognition in the challenges we have in opening up sports leagues.”
Initially, MLB officials batted around the idea of having all 30 teams report to Arizona to start the season at Chase Field in Phoenix and nearly a dozen spring-training facilities. Over the last few weeks, there has been a growing desire within the sport for teams to open the season in their home ballparks.
But if MLB -- or any U.S. pro sports league -- is going to restart any time soon, Emanuel believes it will require a “bubble” approach similar to the Arizona concept in which teams would be quarantined away from the field, at least initially. Moreover, Emanuel doubts that fans would be permitted to attend games until early in 2021.
MLB could adopt the KBO’s virus-related rules against high-fiving and spitting; coaches and umpires could wear masks on the field. But KBO players are still getting daily temperature checks and have access to testing if they develop symptoms. In the U.S., testing would have to reach a level at which players could be checked at least weekly, according to Emanuel.
“We’ve talked with a number of teams about what your testing regimen would be, screening for temperature but probably also screening for oxygenation,” Emanuel said. “You can think about how to do these things. I think the proper way of thinking about this is a bubble [with] testing on a very regular basis. I think weekly is probably good enough, but it depends on how strict you think you can enforce a quarantine on the team.”
Lively said it’s expected that the KBO would shut down for at least three weeks if one player tests positive. Nobody wants to be that guy, so although players aren’t prohibited from doing whatever they want away from the ballpark, fear of disrupting the league is guiding behavior.
"Word gets around," he said. "If you're having a good, old party at a bar and random people are around or whatever, it won't be good. They're definitely upping the [preventative] measures, but there's still that one little chance with just how fast it's spread everywhere. It doesn't take much, obviously.”
Emanuel cautioned that “risk isn’t zero” in returning to normalcy anywhere in the world. For as many precautions as a league could take, sports are “not hermetically sealed.”
“For a lot of reasons, very understandably, players are trying to wrap their heads around it, leagues and owners are trying to wrap their heads around it,” Emanuel said. “What would it look like? It’s going to be different than anything in history. But I will say the first league that does it I think will probably set the norm.
"Is it going to be a strain? Absolutely. But it’s not going to be impossible, especially if people want to bring sports to the American public because it’s so important. People have to recognize that there’s a higher purpose here.”
In another few weeks, maybe by the end of May, the U.S. will have a better handle on mitigation of the virus and MLB can move forward. Maybe it will take longer.
“I still think it really comes down to, we’re at the mercy of our federal and state government,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi told WIP-FM this week. “That’s what we’re at the mercy of. We have to make sure states are open and we have to make sure that there are plenty of tests and we’re not endangering anyone.”
Meanwhile, America turns its lonely eyes to South Korea for a baseball fix and some needed advice.