Why they’re playing baseball in KBO and why we’re not playing here

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Yesterday’s announcement that ESPN would be broadcasting KBO games — which began early this morning — was welcome news for a lot of baseball-starved folks. I missed this morning’s games, and we likely won’t be doing day-to-day coverage of KBO contests like we would MLB games for a bunch of reasons, but I’ll no doubt be tuning in to a lot of them, as I’m sure many of you will too. It’s good to have something like that happening. I’m glad ESPN is doing it and I’m glad baseball is beginning in Korea.

But it’s also worth reminding ourselves why baseball is happening there and why it is not happening here. And it’s important not to allow the fact that baseball is happening there fool us into believing baseball can and should be happening here now or that it can happen here any time soon. At least responsibly.

As Jane McManus, the director of Marist College’s Center for Sports Communication noted in a powerful thread this morning, South Korea is in a very, very different place with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic than we are in North America. There have been 10,804 cases of COVID-19 there overall and 254 deaths reported there. They have had two straight days with no new coronavirus cases at all and they are just starting to ease social distancing measures.

Contrast that with the United States — a country with about six times South Korea’s population — which has had over 1.2 million cases, which is over 110 times the number of cases. Today the U.S. will pass 70,000 deaths. And it’s getting worse.

Yesterday, it was reported that the Trump administration is privately projecting a steady rise in the number of cases and deaths from coronavirus over the next several weeks, reaching about 3,000 daily deaths by June 1. That despite the fact that (a) we have rarely passed that many deaths at all in any single day (our usual total has been closer to 2,000); and (b) we were, allegedly, already past our “peak.” We’re clearly not past it, though, at least according to those people in the Trump administration.

In light of those numbers, it makes a great degree of sense that South Korea is beginning to open up and play professional sports. It also makes a great deal of sense for our country to not open back up yet and for our professional sports to be of secondary concern for the time being.

Yet, the wheels are turning to bring back both public life and commerce in general and Major League Baseball in particular.

Governors of an increasing number of states are announcing increasingly aggressive reopening strategies, to the approval of the federal government. Every few days Major League Baseball leaks some new proposal from their brainstorming sessions about how to bring back the game. How and why is that happening given that our death rates are climbing? How and why is that happening given that there is no real sign that we have even come close to getting the pandemic under control?

Given that the medical and public health science doesn’t really seem to back up these aggressive reopening schedules, something else is at work. Some desire, be it emotional, political, or some combination of the two, to simply return our country to something approaching normality regardless of that medical and public health science. A desire — overtly stated already by politicians, several of whom have been pushing baseball to return for symbolic and inspirational purposes — for the National Pastime to debut on or around, say, the Fourth of July so that everyone can declare the nation healed and normality restored. That stands in addition, of course, to the business considerations of baseball coming back and what I am sure is a genuine desire on the part of players to play and fans to watch them play.

If the Trump administration is correct, however, and we’re going to see 3,000 people a day dying of COVID-19 by June, it’s worth asking how such a schedule makes any kind of sense whatsoever. And what it says of us as a nation if, despite those numbers, we decide to press on anyway. Should the assertion “baseball is returning in July” lead the conversation with everything necessary to make that happen falling into place afterward, or should, like in South Korea, public health considerations lead the conversation and the reopening of the country follow? That question, by the way, goes both for baseball and for restaurants, coffee shops, hair salons and everything else.

I know the common response to that is “we can’t stay locked down forever.” I know that people are suffering financially and psychologically from all of this. Of less importance, I know people simply want baseball back. I do too.

But if we’re going to make the decision, as a nation, to bring back baseball — and bars and restaurants and everything else –while a pandemic still rages, we should be obligated to admit, in no uncertain terms, why it is we’re willing to do that. What considerations we are prioritizing above public health. What price we’re willing to pay for our convenience, our comfort, and our entertainment.