The bases are empty. Koo Chang-mo, a slender southpaw, is on the mound for the N.C. Dinos, facing Kim Dong-yub, the leadoff hitter for the Samsung Lions. A 1–2 count. The pitch comes, and Kim lunges across the plate, clipping the ball as it dives out of the strike zone, driving it into the ground in front of the catcher. Then he twirls around and settles back into the batter’s box. Koo stands calmly on the first-base side of the rubber. His fastball only hits the low nineties, but he has guile. He tries the same pitch, well off the plate and in the dirt, and Kim goes for it again—strike three.
It’s all there: the pitcher’s smooth delivery, in the spotlight of the mound and framed by emerald green; the thump of the ball against the mitt; the umpire’s bark, a universal language. It’s easy to forget that the faint hum of the crowd is manufactured noise, that the stands are empty, or that it’s not even 6 A.M. where I am, in Boston. One half of the broadcast team, Karl Ravech, is at his house in Connecticut. The other half, Eduardo Perez, is in Miami. The game is in Daegu, South Korea.
On May 4th, ESPN announced that it had reached a deal to broadcast six regular-season Korean Baseball Organization games per week, live, in the U.S., starting with Opening Day, which was that night, at 1 A.M. on the East Coast. Most games would be aired on ESPN2 or on the ESPN App, with a broadcasting lineup of M.L.B. regulars: Ravech, Perez, Jon Sciambi, Jessica Mendoza, Kyle Peterson. Perez and Ravech are easy company. By the time I tuned in, three days into the K.B.O. season, they had figured out how to deal with the lag between the broadcast’s audio and video feeds, which, on Opening Day, had sometimes led them to talk over each other. (The solution: watching each other on Facetime instead of looking at each other on the feed.) They seem genuinely happy to be watching baseball, even if it’s not quite major-league level. They watch the way that fans often watch, with one eye on the game. At one point in the ninth, Ravech admitted that he lost track of where they were in the batting order, and it sounded more like a confession of pleasure than of dereliction. He and Perez noted the drumbeat in the stands—cheerleaders were there, even though fans weren’t—and joked that perhaps it was telegraphing pitches, an allusion to the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. It was hard to imagine such a lighthearted reference being made during an M.L.B. broadcast. Earlier, Andruw Jones, the former Atlanta Braves star, had joined via Zoom, and described life as a forty-three year-old rookie with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, in Japan’s Nippon league, and how much he likes Kobe beef.
Ravech and Perez clearly loved talking with him, and they seemed to take the same delight in other demonstrations of emotion: a bat flip after a flyout, a dramatic head toss. The morning is full of small moments like that—hardly life changing, but, taken together, evocative of real human communion. I’d been expecting dissonance—a lack of energy from the players, with no fans to fuel them; the strangeness of empty seats. What’s striking is how normal it feels. Which also makes me a little worried.
Sports are creeping back. The Bundesliga, Germany’s professional soccer league, is set to restart this week. N.B.A. practice facilities are slowly reopening. Regional tennis events—with elaborate precautions and no fans—have begun popping up. Swimmers are diving back into the pool, keeping an empty lane between one another. Players in the National Women’s Soccer League will report to training camp this week. In the U.K., the government has approved a restart of the Premier League after June 1st. The N.F.L. recently announced a schedule with a full slate of games.
Some people have been watching the K.B.O. as a kind of trial run for sports elsewhere. “Professional baseball is being played today in Taiwan and South Korea, and players have reported that they feel safe and protected in their environment,” the superagent Scott Boras wrote in an Op-Ed for the Times. “We can do it here, and for the sake of America, we should.” He might have said “for the sake of my bank account” instead: Boras negotiated most of the biggest contracts in major league history. Still, he’s not alone in arguing, however pompously, that sports serves some higher purpose. Even Anthony Fauci has sounded wistful for the return of the Washington Nationals.
But, if you listen to Fauci carefully, one’s optimism about such a prospect dims a little. We can do it here, but not by bringing normalcy back. It will require testing, contract tracing, a slow rollout, and uncomfortable restrictions. “If we let our desire to prematurely get back to normal, we can only get ourselves right back in the same hole we were in a few weeks ago,” he recently told two sportswriters for the Times. What would it take? Perhaps the K.B.O. does offer a good model—and a daunting one. The first case of COVID-19 appeared in South Korea a month after the first one showed up in the United States—but the two countries’ responses were wildly different. South Korea implemented a widespread testing regime. It trained a small army of contract tracers. Privacy concerns have not been paramount: the government tracks positive cases through smartphone apps, credit-card transactions, and security-camera footage, and alerts the public about new cases. Some people in quarantine wear tracking devices on their ankles or their wrists. Thermal scanners, monitoring the temperatures of passersby, are prevalent. And it appears to work: so far, South Korea has had fewer than eleven thousand cases, and two hundred and fifty-six deaths. Massachusetts, where I live, and which has a population roughly one-eighth as large, has seventy-eight thousand confirmed cases, and nearly five thousand deaths.
During the Dinos-Lions broadcast, Ravech and Perez interviewed Drew Rucinski, a former M.L.B. pitcher who threw a shutout for the Dinos on Opening Day, about the daily routines and restrictions of ballplayers in South Korea. They asked him about COVID-19 testing and temperature checks, sounding as though they were going to file a report on reopening for the league office. Later, during the seventh inning, Jeff Passan, ESPN’s M.L.B. whisperer, jumped on the broadcast from his home. He wore a tan suit and a pale blue tie, even though it was seven-thirty in the morning on the East Coast. He was there to talk about reports of the M.L.B.’s return-to-play proposal. Ravech and Perez, who had been optimistically alluding to rumors of a second spring training in June and a rumored start date of July 1st, turned cool to the idea, and pushed him on the logistics. They told him that they’d been talking to Rucinski about the situation in Korea, where the restrictions are more severe and monitoring is more widespread. Is the M.L.B. prepared to take those steps?