Inside look at Korean baseball restart that offers hope for MLB

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.

Can MLB learn anything from the Korean league moving to the brink of play? It is tricky. While the countries had similar death tolls due to the virus late last month, as of Monday, South Korea’s total was just 236 compared to more than 40,000 for the US. Still, MLB officials have spoken about learning particularly about handling behind-the-scenes/clubhouse issues.

Kelly said it is mandatory to wear masks to and from the stadium and that all the players are now funneled through a singular entrance at which an infrared body scanner checks their body heat and a team trainer also takes their temperature. Conger mentioned that individual cubicles have been set up in the food room so that players could be isolated when they eat.

“Once you are in the stadium, though, it does feel mostly like a normal day.” Kelly said.

The scopes of the Korean (10 teams) and MLB (30) are hugely different. In the Korean league, there are no plane flights. The longest bus ride is 200 miles from Seoul to Busan, the second largest city. In this way, this most mirrors one proposal being mulled by MLB — the Arizona plan, in which all the clubs would at least initially be housed and play in a downtown radius in which no club would be more than 60-90 minutes from any other.

There have been many criticisms of the Arizona plan, including players concerned about being isolated away from family. Conger and Kelly can provide insight there. Conger got married in November and he and his wife Kristin were together for spring training in Australia when the virus hit Korea. So it was decided that Conger would return to Korea in mid-March and Kristin would return home to Orange County.

“It turned out I was in one of the safer countries and the US blew up,” said Conger, who is of Korean descent and can understand the language. “It was bad timing. She’s stuck in the house.”

Kelly has a wife and 4-month-old daughter in Phoenix. Like Conger, Kelly is hoping for a reunion soon, but the uncertainty is still enough and the need to quarantine for two weeks away from family when foreigners arrive in Korea has put off travel back to the country for now.

For now both have the game, among other items, fielding inquiries from major leaguer friends back home about what the game is like so close to playing again. Conger said that when the balls start to fly, it is easy to get lost in the sport — he called it “bliss” — but that the questions about what happens next return instantly after practice, including does the league get shut down if a person involved from player to clubhouse attendant tests positive?

Kelly, because he was in quarantine for two weeks after returning to the country, is a bit behind his teammates and will not pitch in a game until April 29. He has his eyes on returning to MLB as early as next year, following the path of players such as Eric Thames, Miles Mikolas and Chris Martin, who went from the majors to Korea back to their best success (and finances) in the majors.

Kelly is still just 30, good enough once that he (not his pal Anthony Rizzo) was the headliner when the Red Sox traded them to the Padres in December 2010 for Adrian Gonzalez. The righty was 14-12 with a 2.55 ERA last year for the Lotte Twins.

These days, though. Kelly and Conger have in Korea what their counterparts back in the States do not.

”I’m pretty excited to play a spring training game,” Conger said.

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