NPB goes viral: season to start on June 19

On June 19, Nippon Professional Baseball will open its pandemic-delayed season, roughly three months late, commissioner Atsushi Saito told an online press conference Monday.

Teams in both leagues are slated to play 120-game seasons, with 24 games against each league opponent, no interleague, and no all-star break. Each team will have four practice-game series starting from June 2. The season will start behind closed doors as they have already done in Taiwan’s CPBL and South Korea’s KBO.

The timing coincided with the government’s move to lift the remaining areas under a state of emergency — Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures and the northern main island of Hokkaido.

“I am very pleased we could settle on an Opening Day,” Saito said in Japanese. “But we will prepare. It is important to proceed carefully to protect the players, the people connected with the game and their families. We have created detailed guidelines so we can safely hold games.”

Saito said there is no roadmap at the present for getting fans into the ballparks.

“We have been solely focused on whether or not we could even hold games without fans,” he said. “When the situation gets better, of course we will be able to think about fans at games, but we are not having detailed discussions about it. When we get to that stage, then we will carefully consider the necessary guidance to do so.”

On May 13, Kansai University economist Katsuhiro Miyamoto said the economic cost of not playing baseball games before fans before the end of June would be 72 billion yen ($673 million). Yet the teams here have been virtually silent about the costs to them of not being able to do business in a pandemic.

Team executives have discussed the need to rethink road trips, so while the number of league games will not change, the schedule will likely undergo a massive overhaul to minimize travel.

Although the Central League teams have expressed a willingness to ditch its playoffs that determine which of the top three teams reach the Japan Series, Saito said no decisions have been made yet.

Why Japan?

The decrease in new infections throughout Japan comes as something as a surprise since until March 24, the government spent much of its PR capital on declaring Japan would be a safe place to open the Olympics on July 24. Testing was withheld as much as possible and deaths were intentionally undercounted.

Although the government declined to ramp up testing until the start of May and has done precious little tracing, it did ask sporting events and schools to shut down from the end of February. Once the state of emergency was announced for Japan’s biggest metropolitan areas and Hokkaido in early April, the government asked non-essential businesses to shut down.

There is much debate about why Japan has suffered such a small hit from COVID-19 — although a vastly larger one than in Taiwan and South Korea, where with no Olympics to protect, tougher active measures were enacted quickly.

And though the government did try to put some spin on the issue, Japan was never treated to a propaganda campaign from politicians and a major “news” network against scientific findings and the potential dangers. We were told it could be very problematic from the outset.

It is likely the lack of politicising the response or a push to put people in harm’s way in order to protect the economy, that has allowed NPB teams to say, “We’d love to start thinking about fans, but safety is the most important thing.”

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