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Professional baseball is back — in Taiwan, where robots will be the spectators

The stands will be empty, but for a handful of mannequin robots posing as fans of the champion Monkeys.

America's pastime is returning this weekend, nearly 8,000 miles away from the sport's birthplace — in front of robot mannequins in the stands.

Taiwan, credited for early detection of the novel coronavirus, will reap a very American reward for its efforts on Saturday as island residents tune into the world's first competitive pro baseball game since the pandemic led to a mass economic shutdown.

The coronavirus pandemic forced a timeout for virtually all world sports last month, with Major League Baseball suspending play during spring training, about two weeks before the start of real games.

And while MLB officials and players weigh unconventional plans to get the sport restarted in North America, the defending Chinese Professional Baseball League champion Rakuten Monkeys and traditional power Chinatrust Brothers get to play for real.

"Luckily we can play baseball, it is the most lucky thing in the world," Monkeys General Manager Justin Liu told NBC News on Friday.

The game is set for Taoyuan International Stadium in Taoyuan City, about 25 miles west of Taipei. Weather permitting, the first pitch will be at 5:05 p.m. local time, which is 5:05 a.m. ET and 2:05 a.m. PT in the United States.

Cable network Eleven Sports announced Friday that it would stream the game worldwide, outside of Taiwan and Japan, in both Mandarin and English.

"It is not only for Taiwan but it is also globally because our league, the CPBL, will be the first professional baseball game played in the world," Liu said. "This is a going to be a symbol and an accomplishment."

By late Friday night in Taiwan, there had been 380 positive cases of coronavirus and five ensuing deaths on the island of 23 million residents. As a point of comparison, the state of Florida, with 21 million residents, has already topped 17,000 cases with at least 390 COVID-19 fatalities.

Liu said players are being kept in dorm-style housing and their travels are limited to the ballpark.

Zachary Binney, an adjunct instructor of epidemiology at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, praised Taiwan's handling of the outbreak, but said he's still worried about starting games on the island now.

"The country has shown a degree of responsibility," Binney said Friday. "But I’d just rest easier if they had a completely closed system, so no support staff, no family, no one had any outside contact."

Amir Attaran, a professor of law and epidemiology at the University of Ottawa, effusively praised Taiwan's Ministry of Health & Welfare as "super impressive" in fighting this pandemic - but said playing the sport now is "not a good idea."

"Baseball is a not a contact sport like football is, but you're not going to tag a guy out from six feet away," he said. "I don't see how this is going to work."

No fans will be allowed in CPBL stadiums for the time being, aside from robot mannequins dressed up as fans at Monkeys home games.

Public outdoor gatherings are limited to 500 people in Taiwan. Liu promised there would be many fewer than 500 people and robot mannequins, combined, at the stadium, just for that symbolism.

Staging any game will be a moment of pride for residents of the self-governing island, according to CPBL Secretary General Feng Sheng-Xian.

"It is very important for the nation because it shows we were successful in fighting this virus," Feng said.

Taiwan's much-praised battle against coronavirus may have supplied the island with diplomatic ammunition in its long struggle for basic international recognition.

The country, founded by Chinese Nationalists on the mainland after the Chinese Revolution and located on Taiwan since 1949, has long lived under a massive shadow cast by Beijing. Only 15 nations worldwide have diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Taiwan, booted from the United Nations in 1971 at the behest of the People's Republic of China, is citing its work against coronavirus to push for inclusion in the World Health Organization. Beijing strongly objects.