Play ball: Korean baseball league begins in empty stadiums

SEOUL, South Korea -- Cheerleaders danced beneath rows of empty seats, and umpires wore protective masks as a new Korea Baseball Organization season began in South Korea.

After a weekslong delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, a hushed atmosphere allowed sounds, such as the ball hitting the catcher's mitt and the bat hitting the ball for a single or double, to echo around the stadium.

There were faces in the stands at a game on Tuesday -- pictures placed in the seating -- because fans aren't allowed into the venues for now.

As a result, it was easy to hear players cheering and shouting from the dugouts. It was a relief to fans watching from home in a country that is now attempting a slow return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy amid a waning caseload.

The country's professional soccer leagues will kick off Friday, also without spectators in the stadiums.

As one of the world's first major professional sports competitions to return to action amid the pandemic, the KBO League has employed preventive measures aimed at creating safe playing environments.

Players and coaches go through fever screenings before entering stadiums, and umpires and first- and third-base coaches must wear masks during games. Players are prohibited from high-fiving teammates or signing autographs. Chewing tobacco was banned to prevent spitting. Masks and latex gloves are required at training facilities.

Fans will be barred from games until the KBO is convinced that the risks of infection have been minimized. If any member of a team tests positive for the coronavirus at any point of the season, the league will be shut down for at least three weeks.

On Tuesday, teams tried to create a festive atmosphere in the empty stadiums.

In a game in the capital, Seoul-based LG Twins defeated crosstown rival and defending champion Doosan Bears 8-2 at Jamsil Baseball Stadium, where the outfield seats were decked with huge banners of the Twins' cheering slogans.

Twins outfielder Kim Hyun-soo, who spent some time with the Baltimore Orioles, hit the league's first home run of the season in the third inning, a two-run shot off Bears starter Raul Alcantara. As he rounded the bases, Kim extended a hand toward third-base coach Kim Jea-gul, who raised his arm but stayed out of contact.

"The players just really wanted to play baseball, and we are delighted to do just that," Kim Hyun-soo said.

In Incheon, SK Wyverns imitated a home crowd by covering the outfield seats with rows of horizontal banners showing faces of fans wearing Wyverns caps and masks as they hosted the Daejeon-based Hanwha Eagles.

In Daegu, the city hit the worst by the virus, the home team Samsung Lions used their huge scoreboard to play video messages from players, celebrities and fans thanking doctors and medical staff fighting the outbreak, which overwhelmed the city's hospital capacities in late February and March before slowing in recent weeks. The Lions' game against the Changwon-based NC Dinos was broadcast on ESPN. The NC Dinos won 4-0.

"It would have been better if they could be with us, but I am glad that we delivered something good to fans watching TV," said Dinos outfielder Na Sung-bum, who went 2-for-3.

Also, the Seoul-based Kiwoom Heroes routed the host Kia Tigers 11-2 in Gwangju, handing former San Francisco Giants slugger Matt Williams his first loss as a manager in the KBO. The Busan-based Lotte Giants defeated the KT Wiz 7-2 on the road in Suwon.

A full season of baseball seemed doubtful in early March, when South Korea was reporting around 500 new coronavirus cases per day, forcing the KBO to postpone its March 28 season openers.

But South Korea reported just three new cases on Tuesday, its lowest daily jump since infections surged in late February. Experts credit the downward trend to tightened border controls and active efforts to test and isolate virus carriers and trace their contacts, using medical, banking and immigration records and location information provided by police and telecommunications companies.

Officials have started relaxing social-distancing guidelines and are preparing to reopen schools, starting with high school seniors on May 13.

Barring any virus-related suspensions, the KBO plans to maintain a 144-game regular-season schedule. However, it decided to scrap its all-star game and shorten the first round of the playoffs from best-of-five to best-of-three series.