Hanwha Eagles players wearing face masks line up before the start of their game against SK Wyverns on May 5, 2020, in Incheon, South Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Hanwha Eagles players wearing face masks line up before the start of their game against SK Wyverns on May 5, 2020, in Incheon, South Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Baseball in Korea provides glimpse of future of M’s games

The Korean Baseball League is back and gives a peek at what future MLB games will look like.

By Ryan Divish / The Seattle Times

For ultra-early risers, very-late night owls and insomniacs, or specifically baseball-starved fans craving a Major League Baseball season that came achingly close to starting, there has been an oasis of live sports relief this past week during the hours most people are asleep.

After a delay due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) started its 2020 season last Monday. In the search for programming while leagues in the United States are shut down, ESPN worked out a deal to broadcast six live KBO games per week, with an English broadcast done by announcers in the U.S.

The quality of the games, which include a handful of former big-league players, isn’t great. It’s probably a little lower than the Triple-A level. But it’s real, live baseball.

Beyond the joy of watching baseball, these games provide a glimpse of what Seattle Mariners games and other MLB matchups might look like if/when they return.

The status of the 2020 MLB season is in flux. Owners reportedly are preparing a proposal to restart the season potentially on July 1 with a three-week spring training starting June 10, and with teams practicing and playing games in their home ballparks.

While the logistics and details have yet to be announced, one thing seems certain among baseball executives, staff and players: Games will be played without fans for the foreseeable future.

“We know there won’t be fans in T-Mobile Park when we start back up,” a Mariners front-office source said.

In South Korea and Taiwan, where its league also recently resumed the season, stadiums are empty except for players, staff, umpires and some media members. Base coaches and umpires must wear masks and latex gloves on the field, and the teams’ training staffs wear masks in the dugouts. Some players wear masks in the dugout, but not on the field. Spitting is not allowed.

The stands are empty. Well, the SK Wyverns, Samsung Dinos and a few other teams have small groups of team cheerleaders dancing and yelling toward imaginary fans and ambivalent players, which is somewhat amusing, if not strange.

Both countries are well ahead of the U.S. in terms of controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus. Still, letting fans attend games there was never a realistic immediate option; there are too many risks to make it viable.

MLB likely will do the same, losing millions in ticket and concession revenue, given the current social-distancing guidelines and varying rules about group gatherings and protection for the players.

Oregon Gov. Katie Brown said Thursday that sporting events, concerts or festivals with large crowds will not be allowed in the near future. Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state health officer and epidemiologist, did provide clarification to The Oregonian’s report, saying:

“But as you heard from the governor’s remarks, large gatherings will likely not be happening through the end of September. So if or when those activities resume, they would likely resume without the fans in the stands, but hopefully the fans watching them from a screen in the safety of their own home.”

In a video interview with Peter Hamby of Good Luck America on Snapchat, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan also said the return of the Mariners, Sounders and college athletics this summer would be without fans.

“I don’t think you are going to see crowds in stadiums,” she said. “I don’t know if you saw it, but in Taiwan, they had their first games and they actually had mannequins in the seats. You may get virtual fans. But I think there is going to be enough challenges to get players to different cities. So I don’t see crowds in our near future. But I think we can be innovative in different ways.”

The last time an MLB game was intentionally played without fans was on April 29, 2015, at Camden Yards between the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox, because of civil unrest in Baltimore. The game had media in attendance and a television broadcast, which drew high ratings. Most players called it surreal. Now every MLB game could be like that.

Do they sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at an empty park after the top of the seventh inning? How about walk-up music for players or scoreboard celebrations for home runs? The constant din and palpable energy of even the smallest crowd would be absent.

Like many other MLB teams, the Mariners are monitoring ESPN’s KBO broadcasts to see how those games look and feel without fans.

The organization is brainstorming possibilities of how to make the in-game experience in the stadium beneficial for the players, and how to put together a broadcast that draws in fans.

The Mariners’ marketing group and game-production staff are among the best in baseball. There have been discussions about cardboard cutouts of fans in seats. Perhaps they allow fans to send in photos to the team and pay for cutouts of them to be placed in the ballpark.

Artificial crowd noise can be heard at some KBO games, pumped through speakers and made louder after certain plays. Would the Mariners do that? Could they capitalize on the booming use of Zoom and have interactive fans perhaps yelling and cheering on the JumboTron? Cheerleaders probably aren’t an option. But nothing appears to be off the table.

The Mariners would love to get creative. But that requires enough people to execute those plans. Would they be allowed to have enough staff in the production and video room to put together the ballpark entertainment aspects that could bring some normalcy? Those aspects are unclear when it comes to MLB’s proposal.

It’s similar with the television broadcast. There have been meetings with regional network ROOT Sports and its production crew to discuss what a game broadcast would be like without fans. Could they do more with camera placement and additional cameras to bring viewers a better experience? After all, they wouldn’t have to worry about cameras blocking fans’ views.

Mariners play-by-play broadcaster Dave Sims watched a few innings of a KBO game and acknowledged that playing without fans would be different, but not unfamiliar.

“I’m just happy that we might have games,” he said. “I’ve done games with sparse crowds before, so that’s nothing new.”

Sims said he has broadcast some first-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament games that began in mostly empty gyms.

“I will have to watch my volume,” he said.

Players in the 2015 Orioles-White Sox game mentioned they could hear broadcaster Gary Thorne calling the game. Meanwhile, the volume of field microphones, which are usually turned up to pick up on-field sounds, would have to be lowered.

Sims laughed and said fans would be able to consistently hear what is said on the field. There usually isn’t a lack of foul language.

“I will spend the entire broadcast apologizing,” Sims said. “Hell, I can hear sometimes Vogey (the Mariners’ Daniel Vogelbach) when there are 30,000 people in the ballpark. It will be eerie, because certainly at home I feed off the crowd when I’m calling a game. And you know the players do.”

Sims isn’t certain if broadcasters would be there. T-Mobile Park’s broadcast setup is spacious enough to keep proper distancing for people working. But other ballparks are more confined.

“We might have to call games off the monitor from Bellevue,” he said, referring to the location of ROOT’s studios. “You lose some flavor, but I can suck it up for 30 to 100 games or whatever it takes.”

If or when baseball returns, how we watch and enjoy it won’t be the same. It will look and feel different, and probably not necessarily for the better.

But it likely will be back, and as Sims says, “We should be so lucky to get to that point.”

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