While sports remain on hold for the foreseeable future in the United States, there was promising news announced last week halfway across the world.
The Korean Baseball Organization will begin its season on May 5. With exhibition games underway, the 10-team league plans on playing its full 144-game schedule through Nov. 2. The postseason will begin on Nov. 4 and any games after Nov. 15 will be played at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul as a neutral venue. ESPN is even in talks to show the broadcasts. The KBO’s original Opening Day was scheduled for March 28, but the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic caused authorities there to suspend play just as they did here in North America.
Each roster in the KBO is allowed three foreign players and there are a handful of Americans in the league, including a number of former Baltimore Orioles: Mike Wright, Dan Straily, and Tyler Wilson.
After an impressive collegiate career at Virginia, Wilson was selected by the Orioles in the 10th round of the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft. He made his Major League debut on May 20, 2015 and appeared in 42 games over the next three seasons for the Orioles before being designated for assignment in Sept. 2017 and ultimately becoming a free agent. Foreign teams had shown interest in Wilson in previous offseasons, but because he was under contract nothing ever materialized.
“I had always been interested [in playing overseas],” Wilson told NBC Sports Washington.
He knew it would be “an amazing cultural experience” and also wanted the job security he was not guaranteed in the MLB.
“I wanted the freedom to go to a place where I knew I was wanted and I knew I’d be able to pitch every five days,” Wilson said.
In December 2017, the Lynchburg, Va. native signed with the LG Twins, one of three franchises located in Seoul. After a 23-11 record and 2.99 ERA over two seasons, Wilson decided to head back to Korea for 2020.
Teams in the KBO conduct spring training all over the world. The KIA Tigers, another KBO team, spent this February in Florida. Wilson departed for Sydney, Australia on Jan. 30. After three weeks of training there, the LG Twins headed to Okinawa, Japan for what was supposed to be another three weeks.
But two weeks into training, with the pandemic worsening in Asia, the Japanese government shut the border for anyone traveling from Korea. The team decided to head back to Seoul, but the three foreign players, Wilson, former Major League pitcher Casey Kelly, and Roberto Ramos, expressed concern in a meeting with the general manager and decided to return home.
Back in Charlottesville, Va. for just 10 days, Wilson received a call to come back to Korea with the situation beginning to stabilize. On the second day back in Seoul, Wilson was tested for the virus as mandated by the KBO. He tested negative but still was required to serve a 14-day quarantine.
“I was in my apartment for 14 days… training,” Wilson said laughingly using air quotes around training.
He cleared all furniture out his family room. Wilson then had the team bring dumbbells and kettlebells to his apartment. As for preparing his arm? The right-handed pitcher spent two weeks firing pitches into a mattress pushed up against a wall.
Wilson has been back with his teammates for over three weeks now. The KBO has installed a daily protocol for entering the team’s facility.
“There is only one door you can enter through,” Wilson said. “Everyone that enters the facility has to get their temperature taken.”
The KBO will begin the season with no spectators with the hope of gradually increasing attendance as the season continues.
“It’ll be weird,” said Wilson about playing with no fans in the stands. “The thing that makes the KBO great is the fans. They go bonkers for it over here. They are cheering from pitch one to the final out is made. It’s amazing. I love it”
The KBO has additional rules in place to keep everyone safe. There will be no pregame media scrums in the dugouts. Each manager will be available to the media in a press conference setting before each game. Managers, team officials, and reporters present must all wear masks. After the game, one player or manager from the winning team will be available in the dugout. That interview will only occur once the team has cleared the dugout. Lastly, one of the most common visuals at a baseball game is prohibited: spitting.
There will absolutely be an adjustment period for the players in the KBO.
“Players really feed off the fans,” Wilson said. “Personally, I don’t think I’ll struggle too much with it. I think it'll be a really good measuring stick of how guys can mentally focus.”
While the stands in the KBO might initially be reminiscent of a cold, April weekday game in A-ball, it will still be a meaningful professional baseball game. And a sign of hope for the eventual return of sports in the United States and Canada.
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