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When can sports resume? Attempts by Asian leagues provide valuable insight for Major League Baseball

The Hanshin Tigers of Japan's NPB league played a preseason game in an empty stadium in February.
The Hanshin Tigers of Japan's NPB league played a preseason game in an empty stadium in February.JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

Half a world away from home, two healthy former members of the Red Sox sit in two-week quarantines while waiting for baseball to resume in their Asian leagues. In Newburyport, another ex-Red Sox player contemplates the possibility of his own two-week quarantine if he wants to pitch in the coming months.

The three players — former top pitching prospect Casey Kelly, first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands (a member of the organization for roughly four months who never played for the team), and former big league pitcher Justin Haley — serve as reminders of the many challenges that await the resumption of sports leagues in the wake of a global pandemic.

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While all of the major US sports leagues remain in shutdown as part of the public health response to the COVID-19 spread, three professional baseball leagues in Asia are in varying states of operation. Efforts in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to conduct games offer insight into the challenges sports leagues here will face.

Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have established a loose date of April 10 by which to have discussions about the resumption of play. Those conversations will be informed by what’s happening in other countries’ efforts to restart.

Among those early lessons:

▪ A single positive test can disrupt an entire league

Little has changed in the three weeks since Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, an event that served as the lead domino for the shutdown first of the NBA and then all US leagues. Because of the possibility of one player’s asymptomatic exposure of teammates and other teams to the coronavirus, whenever sports leagues do try to restart, a single player’s infection can halt a sport in its tracks.

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That lesson has been underscored in Japan. Early in spring training, the Nippon Professional Baseball league committed to playing exhibition games without fans; only media, scouts, and team officials were allowed in. All were asked to check their temperature when they entered. The NPB and the J League, Japan’s pro soccer league, set up a joint committee to get the opinions of medical experts about the conditions that would be needed to allow fans back.

Initially, the NPB pushed its start date from March 20 to April 10. Teams continued to play exhibition games, traveling between cities. At the start, there were no protocols to ensure players’ safety, but by mid-March, teams started taking daily temperature checks of players.

On March 23, the league revised its Opening Day from April 10 to April 24, and decided to scrap exhibition games. Minor league spring training games continued.

That dual-track approach proved misguided just three days later, when minor leaguer Shintaro Fujinama (a well-recognized player) became the first player to test positive. Two of his teammates with the Hanshin Tigers also tested positive.

Initially, the NPB/J-League commission planned to quarantine any player who tested positive as well as those who had been in close contact while letting the rest of the team continue its activities. But one case quickly becoming three — evidence that nearly every member of a team qualified as being in close contact.

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While eight of the 12 NPB teams continue to conduct workouts, Hanshin and three teams that played against it have stopped all baseball activities at their facilities. Sands is with Hanshin, on what he described as a “mild quarantine” with his wife and two sons (ages 5 and 3).

Jerry Sands played for the White Sox in 2016, the last year he played in Major League Baseball.
Jerry Sands played for the White Sox in 2016, the last year he played in Major League Baseball.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/file

“You talk about a 6-foot barrier, the social distancing that everyone is talking about around the world, and I’m in the batter’s box, at first base," Sands said. "It was concerning.

"When we had the diagnosis, honestly it wasn’t very surprising. When you talk about statistics, the law of averages, there was probably someone walking around with it, asymptomatic or they’ve got a sore throat and aren’t telling anybody.”

Members of the Tigers are now getting two temperature checks a day and being asked to report symptoms. Three other NPB teams have also stopped allowing players in their facilities.

The April 24 start of the season was again pushed back Friday, this time without a scheduled date for resumption — raising questions iabout whether there will be a season. The multiple revisions to an announced starting date haven’t been lost on MLB or the MLBPA, which have avoided giving specific estimated start dates.

“If they push it back till whenever and then somebody else gets it, and they’ve started the season, do they push all the games to the end of the year? Do they forfeit them?” said Sands. "If one team has got it and just played two other teams, now they have to be quarantined as well.

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'When you have a 12-team league and all of a sudden you quarantine three or four teams because they’ve been in contact with this team or that team, it’s unrealistic [to have a season].

“At the same point in time, when will it be gone? When will we consider it gone? I really don’t know. There are so many questions.

"That’s why I understand they’re trying to get — for the fans and the teams — dates on when they can try to get this going. But at the same point in time, you’re trying to estimate a virus that hasn’t even necessarily reached a peak or apex.”

▪ Global sports create heightened challenges

In January, Kelly had joined the LG Twins of South Korea’s KBO league for spring training, first for three weeks in Australia and then, after a two-day stop in South Korea, for exhibition games in Japan. But with coronavirus cases spiking in South Korea in late February and early March, the KBO delayed the start of its season and sent foreign players home, with plans to have them return two weeks before the start of the season.

Casey Kelly appeared in 26 regular-season games over four seasons in the majors, but none at the big-league level for the Red Sox.
Casey Kelly appeared in 26 regular-season games over four seasons in the majors, but none at the big-league level for the Red Sox.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/file

Kelly, 30, got back to Arizona in early March and spent two weeks there. During that time, while South Korea’s public-health measures had started to flatten its coronavirus curve, cases started rising rapidly in the US. Though the KBO hadn’t set a new starting date, players were summoned back to South Korea in hopes that they would arrive before flights out of the US ceased to be an option and before a mandatory quarantine period took effect in South Korea.

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For Kelly, the need to fly to Seoul meant leaving his wife and three-month-old daughter.

“It’s been the toughest couple months of my life, trying to make the right decisions for me and my family,” said Kelly. “But everyone in the world is dealing with tough decisions. I’m thankful I have a job and that I’ll be able to do it.”

Kelly, upon landing, tested negative, but had a mandatory two-week quarantine in his apartment.

“It was definitely frustrating, knowing that the reason I rushed back over here was to make sure I didn’t get quarantined and then I got quarantined anyway,” said Kelly. “That was kind of tough for us to hear after we’d tested negative, but we want to be safe and take all the precautions necessary.”

The quarantine for foreign players amplifies the difficulty that the KBO faces in starting a season. Kelly, who has an app to report his symptoms (or lack thereof) to the Korean government every day, had been in pitching shape before leaving Arizona, but is now just over halfway through a period in which he is unable to throw or work out.

Once out of quarantine, he expects it will take him at least two weeks to be ready to pitch in an exhibition game, and likely at least another two weeks to be ready to pitch in regular-season games.

Haley, who pitched four big league games for the Red Sox in 2018, is in Newburyport with his wife and 1-year-old daughter. He has been contacted by a team in Taiwan about playing. If he decides to do so, he’s been told he’d have to spend two weeks in complete quarantine before joining the team.

Justin Haley has pitched in 14 regular-season games in the majors.
Justin Haley has pitched in 14 regular-season games in the majors.John Minchillo/Associated Press/file

“If I have to sit in a room for two weeks, I can only do so much to stay ready. A two-week break is a very long time,” said Haley. “I’m in great shape. I’m keeping my arm in shape. To sit in a room — which is basically what they’re putting it like — for two weeks, that’s a whole other ballgame. That’s a restart button.”

Kelly’s quarantine experience and Haley’s potential quarantine raise questions relevant for MLB: Will players returning from other countries or even domestic hot zones have to quarantine for two weeks? Industry sources have expressed concern about whether foreign players will be able to return at all, a development that would confront the league with a decision about whether to play games with incomplete rosters or not at all.

▪ It’s a different game without fans

Many eyes are on Taiwan, which is still aiming for a regular-season start on April 11, with games to be played in empty ballparks. Players in the Asian leagues have gotten a taste of exhibition games without spectators.

“It’s a different vibe,” Sands said. “It’s funny. You can hear everything they’re saying and everything we’re saying [in the dugouts]. It’s tough. You don’t realize the little bit of oomph, the little extra effort, the focus you get when you’ve got fans in the stands.”

One industry source called it a “foregone conclusion" that MLB will be playing at least some games this year in empty ballparks to squeeze as many games as possible into the schedule.

While Sands said he hadn’t seen anyone wearing masks in the dugout in the NPB, some KBO players have begun to wear them.

“It just looks really funky,” said Kelly. "If we’re having to wear masks on the field, maybe it’s not the smart thing to be playing.”

Until there’s a coronavirus vaccine, a reliable form of treatment, or vastly improved testing that can isolate those who test positive before they risk spreading the virus, precautions can go only so far in diminishing the public health concerns of bringing two professional sports teams together on a field.

For that reason, while MLB and its players remain hopeful that they will play as full a schedule as possible, there’s also recognition that cancellation of the 2020 season is within the realm of possibility. The experience in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan will offer meaningful signs of what can and cannot be done.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.