When Josh Herzenberg landed in South Korea on Feb. 15, he thought he had walked into an apocalypse.
Herzenberg, the quality-control coach and pitching coordinator for the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization, had been with the team in Australia since Jan. 27 for spring training. There had been warnings of the COVID-19 pandemic making its way to Korea, but Herzenberg didn’t think things would be that desolate when he arrived.
“When I got off the plane here on the 15th, everything was shut down,” Herzenberg said during a phone interview. “The stores were open and that was about it.”
After approximately a two-week quarantine, Herzenberg said, everything slowly started to open up. He then got back to work.
“It’s not normal [in South Korea], but it’s definitely better than what’s going on over there [in the United States],” said Herzenberg, a New York native. “There’s no quarantining, but big public places are still closed.”
South Korea announced its first confirmed coronavirus case Jan. 20. The first case in the United States was reported just two days later.
The KBO, Korea’s top professional baseball league, announced Tuesday it was planning to begin its season May 5.
“We’re kind of treating it now like it’s extended spring training,” said Herzenberg. “Which in some ways is good. We can get some more hands-on time with our minor league guys, put them through individualized development programs.
"But on the other hand, we’re here to compete. Our spring training started like Feb. 1, so we’re ready to go. But, yeah, it’s standard operation. Get to the park, get your treatment, get your lift in, play baseball. That aspect of it is pretty regular.”
Herzenberg has an extensive baseball background. He played at both SUNY Oneonta and Georgetown before becoming an area scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014.
He went on to be an area scout, advance scout, and minor league pitching coach in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization for parts of three years, working closely with Gabe Kapler, who at the time was head of the team’s player development program. After Kapler was hired as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2018, Herzenberg stepped away from the game for two years, returned home to New York City and worked in finance.
The decision to take the job in Korea was a leap of faith, but it also was a reflection of just how much Herzenberg wanted to get back in the game. He had a couple of offers from major league clubs, but he felt this opportunity made the most sense. Looking back, that bold decision turned out to be the best one.
“In a lot of ways, we’re fortunate to be over here,” Herzenberg said. “There’s this whole dynamic of, like, we are actually playing baseball every day. It’s definitely a little bit odd to know back home people are staying home and other people are getting sick.”
Herzenberg described South Korea’s testing as thorough. When people enter a building, their temperature is taken. Same-day testing is available, with a four-hour turnaround. If someone tests positive, they are immediately sent to a quarantine unit and subject to a thorough contact tracing protocol.
At Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium, where the Giants play, Herzenberg said the stadium is equipped with a camera that detects whether your lungs are inflamed. Every part of the stadium is sanitized. The Giants also demand that players wipe down equipment after using it.
The team suggested that players not shake hands, but Herzenberg noted handshakes aren’t excessive in Korean culture because many people bow to greet one another.
The Lotte Giants have yet to have any confirmed cases of coronavirus. One player did have a fever. He was tested and the facility was shut down for a day before the player’s results came back negative.
It’s not baseball as usual in South Korea, but it’s baseball nonetheless.
“We’ve been OK here,” Herzenberg said.