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And it's live: Why baseball in Korea offers us all hope sport's return

 

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Game on: South Korean baseball has returned with face masks and no crowd in attendance

Game on: South Korean baseball has returned with face masks and no crowd in attendance

AP

Game on: South Korean baseball has returned with face masks and no crowd in attendance

Having battled for just over four hours in Changwon, South Korea, the KT Wiz hold a two-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth inning 6-4 up over the NC Dinos.

 

Closing pitcher Rhee Dae-eun is on the mound for Wiz. He's already allowed Dinos catcher Kwon Hee-dong to reach third base but, fortunately for Wiz, Rhee's managed to get two outs. All he needs to do is get the Dinos' final hitter, outfielder Na Sung-bum, out to win.

But Na has other plans. Instead, he picks up on a pitch right over the heart of the plate and lasers a 425ft home run into the right-field bleachers. Kwon trots home and Na follows him in to tie the game at 6-6 and take it to extra innings.

In the 10th inning, the Dinos win it in a thrilling finish.

Third baseman Park Suk-min just connects enough on a pitch from Ryu Hee-woon, skying the shot to left field and just over the fence for the walk-off home run. The Dinos win 7-6 when, only one inning earlier, it looked like it might be game over for them.

That all happened yesterday morning, the Wiz and Dinos serving up the latest offering in the Korean Baseball League (KBO). One of the first leagues to return to action, the KBO have been playing in front of empty stadiums with piped-in crowd noise in an attempt to return to normality in a time where everything is the exact opposite.

As an avid baseball fan, I've been watching with more than a passing interest. I've adopted the Kiwoom Heroes as my team because they most resemble my MLB side, the Tampa Bay Rays, and, as of yesterday, my Heroes are top of the standings having won six of their seven games.

But why is it interesting for you, the reader of the Belfast Telegraph who may have no inclination towards baseball?

Because it's live sport.

Sportscasters have done a superb job of putting on re-runs of classic sporting moments from over the years during the past month or so, but it's not the same as watching a live tournament.

As exciting as it was seeing The Open at Royal Portrush on Sky again, I always knew Shane Lowry would win. When BT replayed Ulster and Exeter's Champions Cup clash from 2016, I knew that Gareth Steenson's late drop goal was still going to sail wide and Ulster would ultimately hold on. The thrill of those events, sadly, have their limits.

But watching Na Sung-bum step up to the plate and smash a homer into the right-field bleachers to force extra innings - I didn't know that would happen.

An inning later, seeing Park Suk-min drop to his knees and watch his moonshot just clear the boundaries of the park and out for the game-winning hit - I didn't see that coming.

And, even though I have no affinity to either team, I loved every second of it.

It's that kind of excitement that fans have been missing from a sporting perspective during lockdown. Fans go through the highs and lows with their teams as much as they do, and it is at times like this when we realise just how much it impacts us.

We're currently in May when perhaps your team would have been preparing for a cup final, or to win a league title. Maybe they would have avoided relegation and survived for another year in the top flight. Or maybe the season was just starting and you were filled with fresh optimism for the new campaign.

For me, my livelihood is based around sports, but for the last month and a half I've been in my home office working in self-isolation. To say I miss the day to day grind of covering live sport would be an understatement.

But that is where the KBO has come to the fore, even behind closed doors without any fans in attendance. It's filling that void and providing baseball fans with a way to enjoy live sport, albeit without that personal connection, and provided the template for other sports worldwide.

In the same way, we are eagerly awaiting sport in Northern Ireland to do the same but only when it is safe to return. But imagine that first kick-off, throw-in or pass-back and the thrill of not knowing what is to unfold over the next few hours - that's what we're anticipating.

So don't worry, just be patient. The KBO has proved sport will return and, when it does, you can guarantee our sporting heroes will knock it out of the park too.

Belfast Telegraph