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Opening Day Is Almost Here, 5,000 Miles from Home

As MLB waits to get back on the field, a handful of players from the States are readying to play ball in South Korea, where the path back to live sports offers a potential map for the U.S. to follow.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMay 1, 2020

Baseball is baseball, from Phoenix to Australia to South Korea to Japan to Phoenix and back to South Korea again.

Casey Kelly can promise you that, including the geography.

In an effort to launch the Korea Baseball Organization's season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2008 first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox and current pitcher for the KBO's LG Twins has blazed a trail of fastballs, thermometers, airplanes and breaking news since late January. And though the games will be played thousands of miles away from the nearest major league stadium, it's worth paying attention.

Right now, aside from the tiny five-team Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan, the KBO is the only game in town, so to speak. While sports in the United States remain on hiatus, 10 baseball teams are on the field in South Korea playing preseason games in preparation for a May 5 Opening Day.

It's an odd sight in some ways. Stadiums are empty. Umpires are wearing masks and gloves. Some coaches and staff are wearing masks in the dugouts. And the league is advising players to wear masks in clubhouses and to download smartphone apps to report their health status each day to league officials.

But they are playing.

"In Asia, they're some weeks ahead of us in terms of seeing things before we will," one MLB official says, noting that the league is watching the KBO and the status other sports worldwide, putting ideas onto paper internally and staying in close touch with infectious disease specialists.

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Indeed, measures taken by the LG Twins and the rest of KBO may provide a partial road map for the return of the Minnesota Twins and MLB.

"We will continue to prioritize the safety of our players and employees and fans and will evaluate all the ways in which the circumstances affect behavior and habits on the field," MLB said in a statement provided to B/R. "When we are able to play, we plan to educate on-field personnel regarding best practices and to adjust as necessary."

Kelly has already been forced to adjust. He returned home in mid-March for what he figured was a brief stopover as South Korea worked to control the novel coronavirus. But that's when it started to spread rapidly in the United States. So the Twins asked him to return in fear that if he stayed home much longer, a travel ban would prevent him from returning to South Korea in time for the season opener.

"Probably one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make," Kelly says of ultimately deciding to forge ahead alone while his wife, Ariel, and their four-month-old daughter, Kameron, stayed home.

When he spoke to B/R, he was nearly finished with a government-mandated, 14-day self-quarantine in Seoul, part of the condition for his reentry into the country. A team trainer dropped off some modest workout equipment at his roughly 800-square-foot apartment: a throwing device ("kind of like a throwing sock so I can play catch with myself"), dumbbells, free weights, bands for stretching and a foam roller.

Meanwhile, he FaceTimes daily with Ariel and Kameron, comfortable knowing that his in-laws live nearby in the Phoenix area.

Like everyone else in this worldwide pandemic, the Kellys are making decisions they never dreamed they would be forced to make, from places they never thought they'd be required to shelter in.

"This is how I provide for my family," explains Kelly, who signed a $1.2 million deal with the Twins for 2020 with incentives that could push it to $1.5 million. "I'm very fortunate to be making money during this. A lot of people are out of jobs.

After spending the holidays at home with his wife, Ariel, and baby, Kameron, Casey Kelly had to travel to South Korea early to prepare for the coming season and avoid possibly being caught in travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
After spending the holidays at home with his wife, Ariel, and baby, Kameron, Casey Kelly had to travel to South Korea early to prepare for the coming season and avoid possibly being caught in travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.Photo courtesy of Casey Kelly

"It's super-hard not having my family here. You're across the world during this time with the pandemic ... They're safe, but the uncertainty in the world makes it harder."

He is not alone among American expatriates playing professionally in the KBO with one eye on their careers and the other on their own health and that of family members back home.

Right-hander Dan Straily, who pitched for the Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles over the past eight seasons, signed with the Lotte Giants this past winter. A similar scene played out at his home when he said goodbye to his wife, Amanda, and his two-and-a-half-year-old son Jaxon in late January before leaving for spring training in Australia.

The virus was just starting to pop up outside of China at the time. Amanda is a nurse, and the Strailys educated themselves on what was coming.

"One of the conversations my wife and I had was this could be goodbye until the season is over," Straily says from his apartment in Busan. They feared South Korea could lock down the country while he was playing, which would prevent his wife and son from visiting.

"We were as prepared as we could be, but it's not super-ideal. No one wants to be away from their family. As baseball players, we're good at adapting. But this adapting is different than any other situation I've been in."

Yet at the same time, Kelly, Straily and a handful of other former major leaguers now playing in South Korea emphasize the relief and joy they feel to be outside, on the field, getting paid to play the game they love.

"The options were to take a deal here or a minor league contract in the States, and you can't fight for a job if there's no [major league] spring training," says Straily, who signed a one-year deal in December that will reach close to $1 million with incentives this season. "It would have left you wondering what's happening next. And that's not a good feeling when your livelihood is at stake."

Adds right-hander Nick Kingham, who's now with the KBO's SK Wyverns after pitching for the Pirates and Blue Jays from 2018-19: "It's definitely better than the situation in the States. All of my buddies went home. They're continuing to train and prepare, but they're preparing aimlessly, not sure of when to be ready."


The KBO season, which was originally scheduled to start on March 28, has already been delayed multiple times. And the players know that if someone in uniform or any support personnel tests positive for COVID-19, there will be another delay even if the regular season is underway.

But there is great hope. And it is because, in no small part, world health experts credit South Korea as being a "model" for attacking and managing this pandemic head-on.

"I'm not surprised at all," says right-hander Josh Lindblom, who signed a three-year, $9.1 million deal with Milwaukee this winter after spending the past two-and-a-half seasons pitching in the KBO. Lindblom and his wife, Aurielle, made it a point to immerse themselves and their three children (daughter Presley, six; son Palmer, five; and daughter Monroe, three) in South Korean culture while they lived there and developed a deep affinity for the people.

"Being exposed to the Eastern world in South Korea, the view is that the mindset of the group is what matters," Lindblom adds. "Decisions made by individuals always impact the group, and everyone impacts each other."

The first coronavirus cases were diagnosed on the same day, Jan. 20, in both South Korea and the United States. By early March, South Korea had the second-highest number of confirmed infections, trailing only China.

Former major league pitcher Dan Straily has quickly become accustomed to hanging out with his teammates while wearing masks and taking other precautions on a daily basis in South Korea.
Former major league pitcher Dan Straily has quickly become accustomed to hanging out with his teammates while wearing masks and taking other precautions on a daily basis in South Korea.Photo courtesy of Dan Straily

By then, however, the country had embarked on an aggressive and massive testing program through a combination of public and private sector funds. An average of 12,000 South Korean patients were being tested daily, many at same-day mobile testing stations and drive-through clinics, many for free, according to the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna. Through mid-March, for example, the CDC estimated that while only about 25,000 tests had been conducted nationwide in the U.S., South Korea had tested roughly 250,000 patients, per TIME's Gavin Yamey. Through April 30, there were 1,095,019 confirmed cases in the U.S. (3,308 per million) and 10,765 in South Korea (210 per million).

With a population of roughly 51 million compared to the United States' 331 million (and with the U.S. geographically being roughly 99 times larger), the management of many things is less challenging in South Korea.

For now, South Korea has gained enough control of the outbreak to allow businesses and public transportation to open. Baseball's return is yet another harbinger of more normal days ahead, however tentative each step has been.

"There's no guarantees, obviously, against players getting sick, but they sent us home with thermometers and we have to check ourselves every morning and every night," says outfielder Preston Tucker, who's now playing for the Kia Tigers in the southwestern city of Gwangju following parts of three seasons with the Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds. "And when we get to the stadium, we have to go in one entrance, one-by-one, and step in front of an [infrared] sensor camera to make sure we're good to go.

"Not saying none of us will ever get it, but we can't have a chance to spread it to the team. They're going to make sure to catch it before you have a chance to spread it."

Kelly encountered the infrared heat sensors at a Seoul airport in early March when his team briefly returned to South Korea after fleeing the virus in Australiabefore then leaving again for Japan as conditions were worsening in South Korea.

"If you were above a certain body temperature, they would pull you aside, ask you further questions about where you've been and where you've been traveling from," Kelly says. "At that time, the malls all had infrared cameras as you went in and out, too.

"Everybody already wears face masks here because at times of the year, the air quality isn't good, so we were used to that. I didn't wear a face mask last year, but this year, I made sure to wear one everywhere, and I've made sure to wash my hands."

In his self-quarantine, from which he was sprung on April 9, Kelly was allowed out of his apartment for essentials such as grocery shopping. But the Twins' translators brought him and others food from grocery stores and restaurants, and a delivery service similar to Postmates was available for restaurant takeout orders, too.

Additionally, the government regularly conducts contact tracing and sends out mass texts to citizens with updates on the latest news and procedures. The other day, a text warned that a person who had taken a train from Seoul to Gwangju had tested positive for the virus and that anyone who had been in those areas needed to make sure to take his or her temperature.

"I thought that was pretty cool," Tucker says. "I wasn't expecting that."

In Busan, a port city of 3.5 million known for its stunning beaches and mountains, Straily recently went to the grocery store and found it closed at 2 p.m. Shocked, he texted his translator and was informed that there is a four-hour window in the middle of the day that some stores close to sanitize.

"I was caught off guard but, at the same time, it made me feel good that when I do go shopping there, it's been cleaned," Straily says.

Tucker says his club is being "extra cautious" with the American players and their families (including Kia Tigers manager Matt Williams, who managed the Washington Nationals in 2014 and 2015) in what essentially is a quarantine situation as well. They wear masks when they go out. There is hand sanitizer on the elevators as they go to and from their apartment each day.

The Korea Baseball Organization's Opening Day will see umpires take the field wearing masks and gloves and stadiums filled with open seating areas.
The Korea Baseball Organization's Opening Day will see umpires take the field wearing masks and gloves and stadiums filled with open seating areas.JUNG YEON-JE/Getty Images

"It's OK for the players because we go to the field every day," Tucker says. "But the wives are just sitting at the apartment. They can't do anything."

While Tucker is not married, the two other Americans on his teamAaron Brooks, who pitched for the Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles from 2014-19, and Drew Gagnon, who pitched for the New York Mets in '18 and '19are.

"Drew and Aaron's wives, I'm sure, are losing it," Tucker says, chuckling. "I don't think they've been outside for two or three weeks. That's protocol. They want to be especially cautious with us because we don't know the areas well. We don't know what would be a safer, less-crowded area. So [the team] delivers food, and they've got a van to take us to the field every day."

Meanwhile, Tucker's girlfriend, Haley, is in graduate school in New Orleans. With the virus hitting that area hard and the school now closed and only offering online classes, she considered joining Tucker in South Korea as an escape plan.

"But right now, it's a mandatory two-week quarantine for anybody who travels here from the States," Tucker says. "So she can't do that because I would be quarantined with her."


Still, a seemingly endless spring fraught with obstacles beats no spring at all. A normal five-week spring training in the KBO has stretched to 13 weeks.

Like Kelly, most of the players have been globetrotters. Korean teams annually scatter for spring training. Kingham's SK Wyverns, for example, trained in Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, for the first half of the spring ("awesome place") and then spent the next few weeks training in Tucson, Arizona, before returning to South Korea. Tucker's Kia Tigers trained in Fort Myers, Florida, in old Terry Park (where the Kansas City Royals trained from 1969-1987).

Straily, whose home is in Bend, Oregon, trained with the Giants for nearly eight weeks in Adelaide, Australia. ("Wine country—it's crazy, you feel like you're in Napa Valley. We did a wine tour one day, and it felt like northern California. It was incredible. The smells...")

Preseason games started April 20 in stadiums without fans. With Opening Day approaching, that continues to be the next big adjustment.

"It reminds me of my time playing in the (Single-A) Florida State League," Kingham says. "It's eerie quiet at times, and it's always right as the pitcher comes set. All the cheering stops, waiting in anticipation for the pitch. You almost get to the point where you want to randomly yell some sort of cheer, alone, just to break the silence."

As tricky as going to work has been for ballplayers in South Korea, they understand life is even more complicated for the families they left here.

"My wife is a rock star, dealing with this, taking care of Kameron while I'm gone," says Kelly, who remains unsure when—or if—his wife and daughter will be able to join him.

Straily's wife currently is working from home in Oregon, caring for patients over the phone. Sixteen hours ahead of Oregon in South Korea, Straily usually is able to FaceTime with Amanda shortly after she wakes up in the morning (just before his bedtime) and usually again with her and Jaxon in the morning his time (evening Oregon time). It doesn't work every day, but they make it work most of the time.

"It's just part of what we signed up for; we understand that," Straily says. "Right now, it's important with the added stress of the situation to communicate as much as possible with friends and family, make sure they're OK."

A preseason game between the LG Twins and the Doosan Bears offered a glimpse of what baseball would look like this season in South Korea.
A preseason game between the LG Twins and the Doosan Bears offered a glimpse of what baseball would look like this season in South Korea.Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

And while the slow, careful march toward the season offers a level of comfort to Tucker, Kingham and others able to continue their careers, their baseball-playing brothers remain sidelined back home.

"I talked to my brother last night, and he's not hitting, he can't work out, he's sitting at home in Tampa and letting me know the whole deal with MLB and what they're doing," Tucker says of Kyle, an outfielder for the Houston Astros. "He's losing his mind. He's starting to Twitch-stream, like everybody else who games."

Between interacting with fans playing Fortnite and other games, Kyle is doing his best not to worry about salary and service-time issues, Preston says. Kyle had a chance to play frequently in Houston this season and gain a strong footing in his career. Instead, if there is no season, Kyle will only receive service time for the month or so that he spent in the majors in 2019.

Indeed, everyone has his or her own set of concerns during this pandemic.

Kingham's younger brother, Nolan, 23, is a minor leaguer in the Atlanta Braves' system and seems just as uncertain.

"He says, 'I don't know what to do, I don't know if there will be a season. The minor leagues only play through August. I don't want to be throwing and have a season 10 months long,'" Nick says.

Conversely, these early days of Kingham's first season in South Korea is going a lot better. Songdo, the waterfront city a few miles from where the Wyverns play, is a scenic district that is home to a Boeing training facility and is filled with many tourists and lots of English-speaking natives.

Masks are not required but both the Wyverns and Kingham's apartment building strongly recommend wearing them. Meantime, temperatures continue to be taken every day upon Kingham's entry to both the ballpark and his apartment building.

"Honestly, it's been amazing," Kingham says. "Very easy transition thus far. I don't know how different it would have been had this virus not been a factor. But I keep telling Jamie Romak [formerly with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, who is entering his fourth KBO season], 'Dude, I'm kind of pissed off that I didn't come sooner.' It's been very pleasant."

So they play on and work to keep calm amid a globe swirling with uncertainty and unrest. This is professional baseball, and life, in 2020.

From his high-rise in Seoul, connected to a shopping mall, Kelly looks out the window and sees open restaurants, an open mall and people walking the streets.

"You would never know anything is going on," Kelly says.

And yet, these are days like we've never lived through. The last time an April passed without major league baseball being played in the U.S. was 1883, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In another notable event that year, the Adventures of Pinocchio was first published.

"You know, it's crazy," Straily says. "Everyone is experiencing the same thing. It's so far out of our control that panicking and worrying about it isn't going to do any good. I don't know if that's life lessons from baseball, but you can only control what you can control. You can't get more baseball than that, but it's true."

     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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