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OC Register: Former Angel Hank Conger readies for baseball by coaching in South Korea

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While just about everyone that Hank Conger played with during his big league career is stuck in quarantine waiting for baseball to return in the United States, Conger is going to the ballpark every day and preparing for a season to start next week.

Conger, who grew up in Orange County and began his big league career with the Angels, is beginning his first year coaching the catchers for the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization.

Although the start of their season was delayed just like the Major League Baseball season, the KBO has been playing exhibition games in empty ballparks for a week and the season is set to begin on May 5.

“The baseball is pretty normal,” Conger said by phone this week. “Obviously they are saying don’t spit on the baseball field, and for the most part we are trying to high-five each other with elbows, but when we are on the field and when these guys are playing, it seems for the most part pretty normal.”

Although they’ll be playing indefinitely in empty stadiums, Conger said the players are adjusting.

“There will be challenges for the guys, but from what I’ve seen they’ve been going about their business pretty well and competing pretty hard,” he said. “I think most of these guys are taking the situation for what it is and saying we’ve got to deal with it.”

Conger said life outside the ballpark also seems normal.

“If you come out here now, you would never guess it’s shut down,” he said. “People are going to work. They are going to eat. It’s like half and half with people who are doing everything normally and the other half are ‘We still need to be safe.’”

The COVID-19 crisis was addressed much differently in South Korea than in the United States. Citizens began wearing masks in public more frequently. Testing was more available. Cell phone data was used to track those who had tested positive and their contacts, allowing them to be more effectively isolated.

According to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University, South Korea (population 51 million) has identified less than 20 new cases per day over the past week. The United States (population 328 million) is still identifying more than 20,000 new cases each day, according to Johns Hopkins.

As a result, Conger is getting ready for baseball while there’s no start in sight in the United States.

“I think the baseball is determined really by how the government handled everything and how quickly they were able to react to anything,” Conger said.

There are still precautions taken nationwide, most notably masks that are prevalent. People typically have their temperature taken before entering a building.

Conger said all players and staff are checked for fevers before entering the ballpark each day, but otherwise they are treated normally once inside the ballpark. They interact together normally in the clubhouse, the dugout and the weight room.

Still, he said there is some concern about the spread of the virus.

“It’s a normal sized clubhouse,” Conger said. “That’s the biggest part of why we get worried, why we have the temperature check. Guys are showering next to each other, changing next to each other, working out next to each other.”

Conger said there are no restrictions on players once they leave the ballpark, in contrast to reports that MLB could begin its season in a biodome-like quarantine, with players restricted even away from the ballparks in Arizona or Florida.

“You are pretty much on your own when you leave (the ballpark),” Conger said. “Early on, nobody was going out much. Technically the government was saying you can still be social distancing, but if you need to go eat you can go eat, get groceries. Guys are trying to live a normal life and at the same time be responsible about what you’re doing. As long as you’re not dumb, not going clubbing or to crowded bars, I think you’re fine.”

At the moment, no one in the 10-team KBO has been diagnosed with COVID-19, but if someone is, the league could be shut down for a couple weeks. Conger said he’s heard varying reports about how an infection would be handled, but he’s braced for some kind of interruption.

The league is currently scheduled for 144 games, despite the month-late start.

“If I was to bet on that, I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Conger said. “If we do that, it would be kind of a miracle.”

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