At the time, it seemed like a stroke of misfortune.
The NC Dinos had been training in Tucson, Ariz., and near the end of their stay — around March 7 — the novel coronavirus had been spreading quickly in South Korea.
The Korea Baseball Organization team tried to find a facility in the United States where they could remain to practice rather than return home. That search was unsuccessful, leaving the team no option but to fly home, passing through Incheon International Airport near Seoul — one of the busiest airports in the world — which had been reduced mostly to a ghost town.
In the coming weeks, thanks to expansive testing, tracing and isolating in South Korea, that stroke of misfortune — not being able to find an available facility to train at in the U.S. — turned into their good luck. South Korea managed to flatten the curve while the virus spread to all corners of the United States, forcing the cancellation of the rest of spring training and the postponement of Opening Day.
Baseball remains on pause in the U.S. but over in Asia, the KBO and the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which is based in Taiwan, have both started up again. And for Americans playing abroad, while there is bit of a disconnect between the relatively normal life they are living and the stories they’re hearing from back home, they are thankful to be playing baseball.
“We talk to our friends back home and they’ve been stuck in the house for five, six weeks now, and it’s kind of crazy to think about that when we really haven’t had to go through that. It’s just wild to watch and think that we ended up in South Korea where it seemed like it was going to be worse, and it turned out to be better,” said Drew Rucinski, who pitched for the Twins in 2017 and now pitches for the NC Dinos. “It’s just kind of crazy.”
Rucinski and his teammates did not have to self-quarantine for 14 days when they arrived in South Korea. But shortly after arriving, Rucinski said he was receiving about seven or eight alerts a day on his phone, reminding citizens to keep their distance and offering other health safety advice. One alert came to Rucinski after a person who had been to a restaurant in the area he was in tested positive.
Though the season’s start date was pushed back from March 28 and they had an extended spring training, the KBO started back up again on May 5 with no fans in attendance.
Rucinski was front and center on the Dinos’ opening night, throwing six scoreless innings and giving up just three hits in a game that was televised on ESPN to a baseball-starved audience in the United States.
“I think when you come to Korea to play baseball, I expected like two to three of my closest friends to maybe check on my stats, but now I’m having people all back home watching. It’s kind of crazy,” Rucinski said. “I was just kind of fortunate, too, that ESPN decided to cover our game the first day.”
The return of the KBO marked a big milestone for the sport, helping provide some American fans some hope that Major League Baseball might be able to make a summer return, too, with the KBO to look to as an example. But before baseball returned, the cases in South Korea had sharply declined. On the day that baseball returned, less than 10 cases were reported in the entire country.
Though cases have gone up slightly from that in the past couple of weeks in the country, both Rucinski and Taylor Motter, another former Twins player who is playing in the KBO, said daily life was mostly back to normal. Still, the KBO is requiring temperature checks at the ballparks, and players are wearing masks almost everywhere but on the field and in the dugout.
Unlike the NC Dinos, Motter’s team, the Kiwoom Heroes — former Twin ByungHo Park is a teammate — had been training in Taiwan in March. With an outbreak in South Korea at the time, the American players were sent home.
Motter returned to Asia a couple of weeks later in late March after receiving a 1 a.m. phone call advising him to come back before a mandatory 14-day quarantine period was put in place for all inbound passengers on April 1. He was on a plane four hours later, leaving home without his wife, who had been scheduled to fly with him to South Korea a day later.
Upon his arrival, Motter and his American teammates went immediately to a testing facility and then straight to their apartment to wait for their results. He received his results within six hours and though Motter tested negative, he still had to complete a 14-day quarantine because of recommendations from the government to the KBO.
He filled his time in quarantine watching television mostly, viewing McMillions, Tiger King, Peaky Blinders and 90 Day Fiance with his wife, who was back in the U.S. He played some videos games and did some home workouts. But after the first four or five days, the routine got monotonous and tough. Meals were delivered outside his door from the team translator.
But though he was still subjected to the 14-day quarantine, Motter considers himself lucky in his timing to have missed every part of the pandemic when it was serious and to be playing baseball when others aren’t.
“Just with everything that’s going on in America, I think that even if things are going to start to open, I think that if you guys want sports to be back firsthand, you guys still need to be cautious and stop trying to be bigger than the disease is. Accept it for what it is,” Motter said. “You guys have to stay away from people. Let’s keep everything safe and try to get back to a sports world that we’re all used to.”
While it might take awhile to return to the sports world that the United States is used to with fans packed to capacity in stadiums, perhaps no league is further along than the CPBL in Taiwan, where fans have recently started re-entering parks.
Taiwan’s early response has resulted in just 440 COVID-19 cases and seven deaths in a country with around 24 million residents. Schools, restaurants and shops have remained open. And though the baseball season got pushed back initially, it is now up and running.
Ryan Bollinger, a pitcher for the Fubon Guardians who previously pitched for the St. Paul Saints and once called the Maple Grove area home, said people wear masks in public and there are temperature checks and thermal screenings — he’s never been pulled aside for having a fever, but his coffee cup glows red when he gets scanned — but everything else appears normal.
Unlike most baseball players around the world, COVID-19 isn’t the thing keeping him off the field. Instead, it’s the freak foot injury that Bollinger suffered during spring training. Bollinger is almost done with his rehab and is eager to begin competing once again.
“It’s strange actually because I guess I don’t really understand what it’s like back home right now,” Bollinger said. “I see what people are posting on social media and see all that stuff but obviously can’t really grasp how bad it might actually be since I’m not there and living a relatively normal life over here.”
Stu Cliburn, who coached in the Twins organization from 1993 to 2019, most recently as the team’s Triple-A pitching coach, is also in Taiwan, where he has been since February. Cliburn is serving as the pitching coach for the minor league Wei Chuan Dragons.
Though Cliburn’s team is based in Douliu, a city more than two hours away from Taipei, in a county that has had just six total reported cases according to one Taiwanese news source, fans still have not been let back into minor league games out of an abundance of caution, Cliburn said last week.
Cliburn and his wife had initially been nervous when he left his home in Fort Myers, Fla., because of Taiwan’s proximity to China, where the coronavirus originated. But after arriving, those fears quickly went away.
And what once seemed like the last area of the world that baseball would return to is now a shining example of its safe return.
“I know it’s been different for everybody to say the least, lock down and social distancing. I talk to my wife pretty much every day from over here and she goes, ‘It’s a blessing in disguise that you’re over playing baseball and coaching baseball the only place in the world that it’s happening,’” Cliburn said. “It’s just a weird feeling.