As Major League Baseball tries to prepare plans for some sort of shortened 2020 schedule, the Korea Baseball Organization is already more than a week into its regular season. South Korea has earned praise for its handling of the coronavirus crisis, which in turn has allowed for a much smoother return of baseball than we’re witnessing in the United States. It’s not quite business as usual — games are being played without fans — but meaningful, professional baseball is still a welcome sight: ESPN’s networks have even begun airing KBO games for sports-starved fans in the U.S.
To find out what it’s like to be part of the KBO right now, Intelligencer spoke with Sung Min Kim, who’d worked as a baseball writer for U.S.–based outlets like the Athletic and FanGraphs until last fall, when he joined the research and development staff of the Busan-based Lotte Giants. He spoke about watching a game in an empty stadium, why he’s avoiding his own team’s clubhouse, and the dangers of bringing a cup of coffee past a ballpark’s thermal heat detecting camera.
You’re one of the few people in the world that gets to watch live baseball these days. Must be nice.
Yeah, for sure. At this moment, you have to be a staff member of a team or media to get to watch baseball, because we’re not really having fans here at this moment. I know that they started letting fans in Taiwan — Taiwan and Korea are the only two countries that are playing baseball. So yeah, it’s really weird to be one of the few people in the entire world to be able to see live baseball right now.
What does your game-day routine look like now? Where do you watch the game from? Are there protocols you need to follow?
I can pretty much sit anywhere. Like, if I want to watch the game from the infield seats, I can do that. If I have to do R&D work during the game, I’ll be behind the home plate at the table seats.
In terms of safety, every time we enter the stadium, we get our temperature taken. That first started back in February; we would have our security guard manually taking temperatures with a thermometer. But after that we installed a thermal heat detecting camera, so we can just walk in and the camera just detects our temperature, and it’s been very effective. No one in the organization has been infected by the coronavirus. Actually no one in the KBO has been infected with the coronavirus, which I’m very thankful of, because it just takes one person to let the dominoes fall. There have been instances throughout the league where a player starts to experience a symptom, like a fever — a fever is the main thing we’re looking for — and they shut down everything until the test results came back. But, fortunately it’s all been negative tests.
Has anybody been stopped by the temperature check?
Sometimes I’ll bring like a cup of coffee into the venue and they stop me because the heat detector detects the coffee instead of me, and then they just manually check my body temperature with a thermometer. But I’ve never really had a fever. I haven’t had a fever since the pandemic started. If anyone’s had to go home because their temperature was high, I haven’t really heard of it. We did have a player who experienced a slight fever after a practice, so we shut down everything. That day he felt fine and normal, but we still decided not to take our chances. We had him tested and thankfully he tested negative. So the next day we just went back to normal.
Once you’re inside, what kind of protocols are there? Not just on a game day, but in your offices. That’s something a lot of workplaces in the U.S. are trying to figure out, once they reopen.
Every team has received instruction manuals from the league on how to go about our daily life. They emphasize us wearing masks, they emphasize, you know, cleaning hands. When you have employees who work in the stands during the game, we all have to wear masks. Umpires and bat boys and bat girls, they have to wear a mask and gloves on the field. Obviously, we try to observe social distancing at all times. Like, even if I’m talking to a person, I try to keep a little distance as much as possible. Personally, I try not to go into the clubhouse. Our players are our most valuable commodity, so we want to keep them as safe as possible. And obviously there’s hand sanitizer everywhere, pretty much.
And you know, I try to keep my hands clean. I try to wear masks and I try to keep distance, especially away from the players. It’s basically normal precautions that you can easily take every day. And those small things, they all add up to big things. It’s not just an individual thing, it’s also been a collective thing. Everyone’s been onboard, everyone has been observing these precautions. We’re just making sure we all take the right actions to keep us and our players as safe as possible.
Has the office itself changed? When there isn’t a game going on, are you able to just work at your desk like you previously would have?
When things got pretty bad in this country, like back in late February, early March, we actually had to work remotely from our homes for like a week and a half, two weeks. And at some point when things started to slow down a little bit in the country, we were back in our office just doing our usual thing. At least in Busan, things have been pretty good here. People are going outside, but at the same time observing the necessary precautions in public, like wearing masks and just being careful where they go and all that kind of stuff.
That’s great that you were back in just a couple of weeks. I’ve been working from home for two months, with no end in sight really.
Yeah. Korea is a smaller country, but it’s also got a really high density. So we’ve been aware that, if someone messes up, it’s going to impact a huge group of people. Korea is definitely more of a group-oriented, group-focused society. And I know that when I lived in the U.S., I felt like I was more of an individual, and maybe it was a little less of a group-oriented kind of thing in the U.S. I’ve been talking to my friends in the States, and a lot of them are aware that they have to make sacrifices for the betterment of the society as a whole. At the same time, I’ve also been seeing the news that people are protesting because they want things to open again and they want to live their daily lives, but I think that’s dangerous.
A big issue in the U.S., especially early on, has been the availability of testing. Have you been tested at any point?
I haven’t been tested because I haven’t experienced any symptoms that would indicate being infected. I’m very thankful for that. There have been people around me who got tested and obviously they all tested negative. We’ve just been encouraging people to get tested anytime they experience any slight sort of symptoms.
Everyone’s done really well so far keeping each other safe. I’m pretty thankful for that. This is still an ongoing thing. This country just had another big outbreak this past week at clubs in the Seoul area. I know that they shut down all the bars and clubs for the time being up in Seoul. I think personally I won’t be going out anytime soon. The happiest that I am is when I’m at work and I am able to watch baseball. I don’t want me to be ruining everything for everyone. I just hope that everyone makes smart decisions and goes about their daily lives with as much precaution as possible so the league doesn’t stop and we all can enjoy baseball without any interruptions during the season.
Are you at all afraid to go to the ballpark? Even with no crowds, there are people around — players, coaches, media, co-workers.
Not really, no. I’ve actually been comfortable with going to my work. We get our temperatures taken when we go in. It’s a very safe zone at this moment. If there’s something going on, then we’ll all be told about it, and they’ll take actions accordingly. Everyone’s been trusting our league and trusting our government on what they can do because they’ve done a really good job for the past several months of handling this pandemic, and we all trust what they do and what they can do for us to keep everyone safe as much as possible.
Is there worry that the season could stop at any moment because of an outbreak?
Yeah, of course. I think it’s on everyone’s mind. I think that just makes everyone even more precautious and careful about their actions.
I don’t know how closely you’re following Major League Baseball’s planning, but they’ve had all sorts of ideas over the past couple of months of how they could return to play. Does it strike you as realistic that they could play this season?
Obviously Major League Baseball is in a much trickier situation than we are because things are not really looking great right now in the States. Thousands of people are dying every day because of this terrible disease, and I’m sure that’s something that Major League Baseball is taking into the equation. At the same time, I know that people want baseball to be back in the States, but this is a much bigger subject than baseball. This is people’s lives. People’s lives are at stake. I think Major League Baseball knows that it would be a really bad look if whatever mistake they make can lead more people dying or getting sick. I can’t really speak for Major League Baseball. I just hope that they make a smart decision that’s based on humanity and that’s based on the betterment of not just the players and the league’s safety but also the entire general public.
All the sports leagues here are trying to figure out how they can come back, and one thing that’s come up is the idea to basically bring an entire league to a central location, apart from the general public — not just players and coaches, but officials, essential staff, and so on. That doesn’t appear to be on the table for baseball anymore, but is that something you could imagine you or your colleagues being willing to do, or is that too much to ask of people?
I think it is too much to ask people. These athletes, they’re not baseball playing machines. They’re human beings, with their lives going on. They’ve got their families that they want to see. I really would not want the players to sacrifice that portion of their lives just so the league can go on. And I think that would also be pretty terrible for the goodwill between the players and the league moving forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed.