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Despite Delays Caused By Coronavirus, Regular Season Baseball Starts In Korea

For sports-starved fans it was a welcome sight — even if delayed a few more hours by rain and a cloud of thick black smoke.

It was all part of opening day for the Korean Baseball Organization, which got underway Tuesday after a five-week delay caused by the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Thanks to a newly-inked deal ESPN deal announced on Monday, people outside of South Korea will have a chance to get to know the league, known for allowing epic bat flips, if they're willing to stay up late for it.

The network will broadcast live six regular season KBO games during its 2020 season. One game per day will be televised Tuesday through Sunday with start times beginning between 1 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. ET.

"We're thrilled to become the exclusive English-language home to the KBO League and to showcase its compelling action and high-level of competition," Burke Magnus, ESPN's executive vice president of programming, said in a statement.

"We have a longstanding history of documenting the game of baseball and we're excited to deliver these live events to sports fans," Magnus added.

Those live events began Tuesday, in a matchup between the NC Dinos and the Samsung Lions. It was scheduled to begin at 1 a.m. ET, but as Sports Illustrated reported, the game was briefly delayed because of rain.

Once underway, the game, played without fans, provided some longed-for action, like a home run blast from NC Dino outfielder Na Sung-bum during the top of the fourth inning.

ESPN posted a video of the homer, and because there was no crowd reaction, the commentators were initially confused about whether the ball was fair or foul.

"Nobody seemed to react at all. There's obviously no crowd, but the right fielder didn't react and finally [Sung-bum] runs around the bases," the ESPN commentator said.

The NC Dinos won the game 4-0, according to the official KBO standings.

The start of another KBO game on Tuesday was delayed not for rain, but because a building fire erupted near the stadium where the Kia Tigers and Kiwoom Heroes were set to play.

"That game was delayed after a building across the street from the stadium caught fire and blanketed the field in thick, black smoke," Sports Illustrated reported.

The Heroes smoked the Tigers, defeating the home team by a score of 11-2, according to KBO.

The coronavirus has eviscerated the global sports calendar, including the ongoing delayed start of Major League Baseball's season, which was scheduled to begin March 26.

According to USA Today, KBO is hoping to complete its 144-game schedule, despite a late start to the season. It's also being closely watched by MLB officials, who are mulling what a season played during a pandemic may look like.

"The KBO's success or failure could be an indication of how MLB may look to proceed when it's ready to begin play, possibly by late June," the paper noted.

As NPR has reported, KBO's new rules due to COVID-19 include temperature checks of players twice daily. All personnel not in uniform, including trainers and umpires, must wear face masks and gloves.

Should a player display symptoms, he'll be placed into quarantine immediately and the league will shut down the stadium where the quarantined player last played.

According to the global coronavirus tracker compiled by Johns Hopkins University, South Korea has roughly 11,000 confirmed cases and 254 deaths.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker
Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.