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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Watching baseball being played in South Korea doesn't mean the U.S. is any closer to a return

Yang Eui-ji of NC Dinos in action against

Yang Eui-ji of NC Dinos in action against Lotte Giants during a KBO exhibition game in Changwon, South Korea, on April 21. Credit: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Enjoy the KBO. Stay up late, wake up early. Baseball junkies will do whatever is necessary these days to get their fix, and thanks to ESPN, we’ll again have live broadcasts of what used to be our national pastime, starting Tuesday (1 a.m. ET) with the Samsung Lions hosting the NC Dinos.

But here’s a not-so-gentle reminder: don’t be fooled into thinking that seeing baseball being played in South Korea -- or Taiwan, for that matter -- suggests we’re any closer to doing the same here in the States.

It’s not about what these Asian leagues are doing in these COVID-19 times to make this possible. Body temperature scanners at ballpark entrances, outlawing spitting and high-fives, players wearing masks everywhere but on the field. Not really a ton of notes for MLB to take.

The reason the Lions and Dinos are being beamed into your living room (or bedside laptop) has everything to do with South Korea’s remarkable success at detecting, tracing and nearly eradicating COVID-19 in regards to the country as whole. It’s the only way baseball or any other sport can operate during this pre-vaccine period.

South Korea, through ESPN, is giving us baseball again. Hallelujah for that. But I can’t shake the jealousy, either.

“I think on the the society level, our lives are pretty much back to normal right now,” said Daniel Kim, formerly of Flushing and Lindenhurst, who will serve as a Seoul-based KBO Insider for ESPN’s Tuesday broadcast. “We’re back to work, cafes and restaurants are packed. Everything is back to normal other than maybe large group gatherings. The new COVID-19 positive cases are in the single digits these days, so it seems like it’s under control for now.”

Single digits, for a population of 51 million. As of Monday, the U.S. was averaging 25,000 new cases a day, with some models projecting that figure to increase by the end of this month. If those numbers aren’t shocking enough, remember that South Korea and the U.S. reported their first case of COVID-19 on the same date: Jan. 20.

Returning to “normal,” as Kim described it, took radical measures -- some beyond what the United States  probably would consider. In addition to readily-available testing, the South Korean government has extraordinary surveillance powers, with the ability to track citizens by cellphones, as well as tap credit-card transactions and back records. Also, if someone nearby tests positive, you’re notified by text message.

“In my building, on the first floor, the owner of the Baskin-Robbins came down with it and we all got alerted as soon as they found out,” Kim said. “That area was quarantined. So that was basically part of our daily routine the last couple of months. The privacy issue is kind of 50-50, I guess, but in times like these, the public health becomes more important.”

When I last spoke to Kim three weeks ago, Seoul was showing signs of life again, and the KBO had to yet resume spring training. Everyone was cautiously moving forward. Since then, however, those exhibition games grew into a TV ratings blockbuster and none of the players contracted the virus, despite being granted everyday freedoms and living at home.

Kim explained that players have to report their morning body temperatures to the team and are scanned again upon arrival at the stadium. They aren’t tested unless they show symptoms, but if a player does come up positive, Kim said the entire KBO will shut down for a minimum of three weeks, then reassess. Presumably, a larger outbreak of multiple players would doom the season.

It is Kim’s belief, after speaking with a few of the players, that the threat to someone’s career, as well as putting the league in jeopardy, is enough to maintain risk-averse behavior. As for the KBO as a whole, there is a tremendous upside to giving this a try, and South Korea’s containment efforts have provided that window. The season will start without fans, but spectators are expected to be phased in gradually.

“I think it's going to be an uplifting moment for the country because baseball is the most popular sport in terms of the professional leagues,” Kim said. “Just for the practice games, the viewership was off the charts. The [TV ratings] were three times more than last year’s regular-season average. So I think people are looking for some new, live entertainment content. And I think baseball is going to bring that back, as well as more normalcy to our lives. I also think this is a good opportunity for the KBO to reintroduce themselves to the fans because attendance started dipping for a couple of seasons.”

Sound familiar? It can’t be easy for MLB to see the KBO now occupy its airtime, from live ESPN broadcasts to highlight roundups on SportsCenter. To get daily reminders that we’re not ready for baseball here in the States. That we have no choice but to watch -- through bleary, sleep-deprived eyes -- another country play our national pastime in the middle of the night.

There are some former MLB players in the KBO. Teams are limited to three foreign-born players apiece. A sampling of American expats, including three ex-Mets:

PITCHERS

Dan Straily

Chris Flexen*

Drew Gagnon*

Warwick Saupold

Casey Kelly

POSITION PLAYERS

Aaron Altherr*

Preston Tucker

Tyler Saladino

Dixon Machado

*Ex-Met

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