Preseason in a pandemic means no fans or spitting

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Preseason in a pandemic means no fans or spitting


The Doosan Bears face the Kiwoom Heroes during a preseason game at an empty Jamsil Baseball Stadium in southern Seoul on Wednesday. [ILGAN SPORTS]

Music filled the stadium as players warmed up, but once the game started, the only sound that filled Jamsil Baseball Stadium in southern Seoul was the thud of baseballs being caught, the crack of bats making contact with pitches, umpires yelling “strike” and players conferring with each other.

Where queues once snaked all the way to the subway exits, on Wednesday, ticket booths lay deserted. While the KBO decided to resume the preseason after a suspension of almost a month due to the coronavirus pandemic, it also issued guidelines for the 10 clubs to follow including that games would only be played as empty stadiums. This meant there were no fans, no food and not much fun.

Apart from the clubs, coaches and their staff, the only other outsiders allowed into the stadium were members of the media.

Wednesday’s game was the second of the preseason and saw the Kiwoom Heroes face the Doosan Bears.

Both teams’ songs blared as the players filled the field to warm up and go through their pregame routines. The players also stood respectfully to observe the national anthem before taking their positions.

Just like a regular game, the teams’ lineups were displayed on the massive electronic scoreboard.

Then, once the inning headed to the bottom of the first half - where the Bears started their offense as they were the home team - the club posted the profile pictures of the players’ at-bat.

Despite the familiarity, the lack of fans was palpable. But they didn’t miss out completely as they were able to follow the action live on television.

Being able to practice together as a team came as a surprise to the athletes, coaches and staff, but the decision to kick off the preseason was an even bigger shock, as by comparison, the major league in the United States has yet to come to any decision about its season or when the exhibition games will re-start.

Due to this, the KBO’s announcement to get back to the field has drawn the attention of the foreign media.

Along with the decision to not allow any fans to attend preseason games, the KBO also devised guidelines for teams to follow in a bid to best protect everyone involved from the coronavirus.

One of these guidelines called for umpires to wear rubber gloves for the entirety of the games while players were discouraged from giving each other high fives or handshakes as they ran back home and scored. The teams managed to get around this guideline and celebrated their scores with non-contact high fives.

Before they even reached the pitch the KBO insisted all players, along with anyone entering the stadium, had to get their temperatures checked, and players and coaches were required to wear masks in the hallways. Only players on the field or in the dugout were permitted to remove their masks.

Spitting, a common sight on the baseball field, was prohibited. But during Wednesday’s game, it seemed to be the guideline the players were having the toughest time following.

“Normally, I spit a lot during games,” Bears starting pitcher Yoo Hee-kwan said. “And today, I know I shouldn’t have, but unconsciously, it just came out. So I think this is something I’m trying to be more careful of on the mound.”

Yoo also said the main difference of playing in an empty stadium was being able to hear what his teammates were saying from the dugout. He said hearing them compliment or applaud him was beneficial, but in contrast, being able to hear the negative comments so clearly was tough.

“Since there are zero fans, I can clearly hear what the players from the dugout, from our team and the other team are saying,” Yoo said. “I could hear them saying ‘you can’t spit, you can’t spit.’ So I covered my mouth once on the mound. I thought that I had to be more careful on the mound.”

While players did their best to adhere to the rules, the coaches voiced concerns that spitting has just become an unconscious habit.

“That’s not something I can take care of,” Bears manager Kim Tae-hyung said before the game. “I can’t really say anything about them spitting. It’s a habit. So when they are in the zone during a game, they just do it, without realizing. I guess … they’ll try to control themselves. But I don’t think they can stop [themselves] easily.”

Since the season was delayed by a little more than a month - it was originally set to start on March 28 - teams have only been allowed to play intrasquad games.

Each team is only allowed to play eight preseason games against other clubs and only against neighboring teams. They are exerting all-out efforts into all opportunities at bat or out on the field.

Now that the KBO announced the official starting date of the regular season, set to start on May 5, which is also Children’s Day in Korea, players are focused on getting their condition up to par over the next two weeks.

Wednesday’s games saw both teams give it their all, with no hesitations to slide back home or steal bases. The Bears came out on top, defeating the Heroes 5-2.

While concerns about playing without fans in their preseason games have been relatively low considering these games tend not to have the highest turnout, Kim said he was worried about how the lack of atmosphere will affect his players once the season actually begins.

“I don’t know,” Kim said before the game on Wednesday. “But I guess it’ll feel different. We’ll only find out once we start playing.”

Despite a strong performance, Yoo said he felt the lack of presence of the fans and was looking forward to when stadiums will be full once again.

“It’s good to hear what our players are talking about from the dugout,” Yoo said. “But I would be happier if I can play in front of sell-out crowds at Jamsil Baseball Stadium, when this situation settles down. I hope that day comes soon.”

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