Tag Archives: coronavirus

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.”

Postseason split

The Central League is expected to cancel its Climax Series postseason playoffs in order to focus to allow for as many regular-season games, Sankei Sports reported on Saturday. The Pacific League is expected to stick with some kind of playoffs to choose its Japan Series competitor.

While virtually everything is new about the 2020 season because of the coronavirus, for stretches of their history the CL and PL have split on their approach to postseason baseball.

The PL, which has traditionally trailed the CL in attendance, has repeatedly tried playoff systems, a single-season trial in 1952, a 10-year stretch from 1973 to 1982 when the first-half and second-half champions played off, and most recently from 2004 to 2006.

The 1952 model consisted of all seven PL teams playing a 108-game season, and the four best clubs playing 12 more. The 1973-1982 format was filled with problems, primarily one of rainouts. Japan has not managed rainouts well, and first-half games rained out and made out at the end of the season, counted toward the first-half championship, not the second.

Teams that won the first half could go into the Japan Series uncontested by winning the second, but often they just fell flat in the second half.

I wasn’t around for those first two tries, but when the PL tried again in 2004, it was accompanied by a chorus of laughter from the old guard and the CL, ridiculing it for watering down the value of the regular season.

The new CL format would allow the third-place team to reach the Japan Series, prompting one of Japan’s biggest windbags, then Yomiuri Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe to spout some of the nonsense he was famous for.

“If the Giants win the CL and the PL champion doesn’t have a winning record, we’ll boycott,” he famously said.

Of course, the reason those playoffs only lasted three years was because the CL owners got jealous of the big crowds that second-division PL teams drew in the waning weeks of the season and wanted in. The PL playoffs were replaced by the Climax Series, which was modified so as not to offend CL sensibilities.

So if things go as the Sankei Sports reported, it will be a nice taste of nostalgia, with the CL owners getting once more to spout off about old-school family values or whatever, and very possibly at the end of the season wishing they had kept their damned mouths shut.

It’s not all about money

After meeting with health experts and his counterpart from pro soccer’s J-League, NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito then met baseball team executives. And though Saito did not announce a date for Opening Day — in keeping with Japan’s current pandemic view of “It will be over when it’s over” — he did say that could come as early as next Monday.

For the last 30 years or so, I’ve studied the differences between MLB and NPB and spent an inordinate amount of that time researching the cost and benefits of sacrifice bunts. But at no time has the difference between the two institutions been more clear than in the way they’ve handled the COVID-19 crisis. It makes me proud to know that my favorite team for all its flaws and all of NPB’s, plays here and is not associated with MLB.

Although NPB greeted the news of a pandemic with one new official Opening Day after another and MLB owners sounded like the adults in the room, saying “Let’s see how this plays out.” The roles quickly reversed. Since the end of March, when Japan’s Prime Minister realized that ignoring the virus while praying at the Olympic alter would not keep the games in Tokyo this summer, Japan has dealt with the issue in a fairly straight-forward manner.

In my homeland, it’s been different.

MLB owners: “By staying safe at home, you people are costing me money. Let’s talk about furloughs and pay cuts because I have a right to protect the return on MY investment.”

NPB owners: “We’ll beat this thing together. Stay safe. Stay ready.”

Frankly, I consider the words of NPB commissioners to be next to useless, but that was because of Saito’s predecessor, Katsuhiko Kumazaki. A former prosecutor, Kumazaki seemed to understand little about the game and really couldn’t give a straight answer to any question. But I’m becoming a fan of Saito, who seems to understand when to be precise and when to show his humanity.

I’ve written before about how Japanese businesses are constrained to some extent by the social demand that they show some concern for their employees. And though Japanese companies will happily tread over talented individualists while promoting incompetent flatterers, they still spend on “company vacations” for the entire staff. It’s more about appearance than real caring but that’s what is expected of them.

In baseball, teams run brutal practices and used to tolerate physical abuse by coaches, but pennant winners always get vacations in December — these days a paid trip to Hawaii for virtually everyone in the organization and their families. It’s expected. It’s part of the cost of doing business.

And while MLB owners are clearly using the pandemic to tighten the screws on labor and on the bargaining rights of amateurs, NPB owners have been behaving as expected, calmly, as if the players and their families actually mattered.

In the final question of Monday’s press conference, a reporter asked Saito if the owners had considered pay cuts to the players.

“At this time, that is something that we are not thinking about,” he said with a slight chuckle that certainly sounded like he was envisioning an MLB owner being grilled for the answer to that question.

Virus hits japan’s baseball omelet Factory

For the first time, Japan’s national high school baseball championship was canceled for a reason other than war or civil unrest — a wave of “rice” riots that swept Japan in the summer of 1918.

A president with the tournament’s sponsor, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, spoke eloquently on Wednesday about how holding the tournament would not only endanger players but tournament staff while asking volunteers turn away from essential work in communities where they are badly needed in the battle against the “invisible coronavirus.”

After that display of passion and understanding, the head of the Japan High School Baseball Federation, Eiji Atta droned on about the mythical importance of the tournament for not only the physical well-being of Japan but for the moral educational value baseball provides.

His sermon was complete with the disinformation that makes Japanese high school baseball ideologues so entertaining.

The press conference opened with the news that both the finals and the regional tournaments, whose winners advance to the finals, had all been canceled together by the stakeholders in Wednesday’s meeting.

Hatta then said nobody but regional federations would decide whether to hold or cancel their tournaments. That’s like Donald Trump telling a U.S. government employee to do her job as she sees fit when she knows that not kissing his ass sufficiently is grounds for dismissal.

This happened a year and a half ago, when Niigata’s federation unilaterally established pitch limits for its spring regional tournament. The national federation, known in Japanese as “Koyaren,” responded that Niigata had no business doing anything on its own without asking permission first.

Breaking eggs

That move, which Niigata walked back on under pressure, did not occur in a vacuum but was part of a larger movement to save Japanese baseball from itself. One by one, other baseball bodies began seeking ways to prevent injuries by establishing rules to limit abusive overuse of young arms.

But by braving Koyaren’s wrath, Niigata’s move was the pebble that triggered an avalanche and opened a public debate on what had been Japanese baseball’s most sacred doctrine: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and you can’t develop truly great ballplayers without breaking bodies.”

By year’s end, the hardass ideologues at Koyaren had bitten the bullet and accepted modest pitch limits at its big national tournaments, the spring invitational and the summer finals.

For decades, reformers in Japan have sought to find a way to build strong young bodies, arms and elbows within a system that seems bent on destroying them. And just when it seemed like progress was only a few years away, the whole system crashes.

“We were going to take the first step into the future,” said Hatta, whose body for years had screamed and kicked in an effort to forestall that future.

Pandemic vs epidemic

Despite cleaner air, wildlife reclaiming suburban streets and Venetian canals, there is no bright side to the coronavirus pandemic. At best, it’s Alien vs Predator, where there’s little we can do but shelter in place and see what’s left.

The best thing about youth sports in Japan is the lack of travel teams and coaches selling parents that “the only way for their talented children to make it professionally is to specialize and practice the sport year-round.”

The bad things about youth sports in Japan is a school system that replicates the intense year-round physical burden of travel teams — without the need to go anywhere! Your children’s bodies can be pushed past the limits of endurance and given no time to recover at their school club activity. Year-round practice? You’ve got it.

I don’t mean to be flip, but amid the debris and human misery left in the wake of the pandemic will be young children in Japan whose bodies’ biggest need was the rest that school closures provided them.

Looking out for the kids

School closures were one reason given for canceling the national championships.

“Ballplayers who have lacked practice will be at a higher risk for injury,” Hatta said, again without any sense of irony in his voice.

Don’t forget that nine months ago, a high school coach was roasted nationwide for not starting his best pitcher in the final of Iwate Prefecture’s tournament, where a berth at the finals at Koshien Stadium was on the line. The manager did so to protect the youngster’s arm.

The line used by so many was, “I could see it if he WAS hurt, but this is Koshien! How dare you throw away his dream and that of his teammates on the grounds that it might save wear and tear on an arm (that had already seen extensive use over the past five days)?”

Summer HS championship faces cancellation

The Japan High School Baseball Federation will decide on Wednesday whether or not to cancel its 102nd national championship, Japan’s most iconic sports event, at Koshen Stadium in light of the current public health crisis.

The federation’s second-biggest tournament, March’s national invitational, was canceled.

From Friday, the government-issued state of emergency was lifted in 39 prefectures. The Nikkan Sports reports that 20 of the 35 prefectural federations that replied to their inquiries indicated they will hold their annual summer tournaments regardless of whether the national championships are held or not.

According to the report, Tokyo’s federation is still planning to hold its tournament in some form.

NPB goes viral: owners talk potential June, july starts

The Daily Sports reported Wednesday that a meeting of Nippon Professional Baseball’s owners discussed three potential starting dates for a 2020 season that has been indefinitely postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.

At an extraordinary meeting of the owners committee held online Tuesday, the participants confirmed that Monday’s meeting of team representatives had selected June 19, June 26 and July 3 as potential Opening Days.

The Yakult Swallows communications department released comments from president Tsuyoshi Kinugasa, who is serving as the team owner’s proxy. He said the June starts would permit about 120 games to be played per team, while the July date would limit the scheduled to around 100 while mentioning that each league’s postseason playoffs were likely out of the picture.

“We will take into account the players, the risks involved in travel, everything,” the statement said.

Kinugasa emphasized that decisions would be made based on the practicality once Japan’s current state of emergency has been lifted. He said scheduling as discussed at Monday’s meeting, would be simplified.

“Our team (based in Tokyo) might normally play a series in Hiroshima and then return to Tokyo to play the Yomiuri Giants, then have a day off before traveling to Osaka to play Hanshin.”

“Now if we play in Hiroshima, we must stop to play Hanshin and Chunichi (in Nagoya) before returning to Tokyo.”

He also mentioned the number of games that can be held, with “120 matches” being secured at the start of June 19th, which is the earliest possible date, and around 110 games when it was the latest on July 3rd. However, he also pointed out that the climax series will be tough regardless of which candidate day it is held.

WBC postponed again

The news out of the United States on Monday was that Major League Baseball has put the 2021 World Baseball Classic on hold due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Baseball America reported that MLB will look to schedule it in 2023.

No nation with the exception of perhaps Cuba places as much emphasis on the tournament as two-time champion Japan, but Nippon Professional Baseball was already interested in resolving the problem of a WBC next March, now that the Olympics have ostensibly been pushed into a 2021 time slot.

And though the WBC is a big deal in Japan, it is nothing compared to the Olympics, where Japan has repeatedly crashed and burned since pros were allowed to play in 2000. Being able to host the 2020 Olympics meant Japan could have another shot at a gold medal.

Japanese companies may line up to get a piece of the WBC sponsorship pie, but with a chance to play for an Olympic gold medal at home, NPB had to lay down a tarp to keep sponsors’ drool from staining the carpet.

Before the reality of the coronavirus was understood, NPB’s season was supposed to start on March 20, a week earlier than usual, take a three-week break for the Olympics, and finish two weeks late. When the International Olympic Committee informed Japan that there would be no Olympics this year, so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could announce that he alone made the decision for the good of the world, NPB instantly began squawking about how the 2021 WBC would be a hindrance to its Olympic preparations.

So while Japan loves its WBC, losing it in 2021 is no big deal, especially if it is only postponed until 2023 as seems possible.

A postponement, as the title suggests, would be the tournament’s second, Japan having won the inaugural 2006 event and the second edition in 2009 after the first tournament was delayed a year due to organizing hassles, many related to Japan.

Jim Small, then the President of MLB Japan was the point man in negotiating Japan’s participation, but NPB needed nudging, and frankly lacked the competence to act in a timely fashion.

There are some who believe a word from Sadaharu Oh, then the manager of the Daiei Hawks, pushed Japanese baseball into taking a chance on the idea.

Although Oh said it wasn’t his doing, he admitted to being a proponent of the tournament while many suits in NPB were against it.

“There are a lot of conservative people in the game, and they were against change,” Oh said in November 2017. “But to grow the game, you need to take some chances. Those people eventually saw the light.”

In addition to those conservative elements, there was also the problem that NPB lacked competency. Because English is a necessity for international business, it’s common for people of minimal competence to be promoted to positions of responsibility simply because of their English proficiency. There are a lot of people in Japanese baseball who are both extremely competent in their jobs and good at English, but that is not always the case.

In the case of the WBC, much of the heavy lifting was done by a skilled speaker of English who is something of a wild card. Although possessed with an excellent memory and knowledge of the game, he is prone to say things that are not true, and is really no administrator.

This became really clear in 2005. Although Japan agreed to take part in the first WBC, NPB’s union had not been notified of it. When asked about the delay, secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa, claimed his organization had only signed a document “expressing interest.” It would be no exaggeration to say that every regular baseball writer in Japan knew where that story originated from.

Less than a year after the union’s first strike had forced NPB into abandoning its contraction plans in the summer of 2004, the union was surprised to learn that the owners had agreed to take part in the WBC without consulting the players.

Although the tournament was managed jointly by MLB and its union, Small said that the organizers made a conscious decision not to reach out to Japan’s union despite NPB’s incompetence and lack of leadership that brought on the 2004 labor crisis.

“We didn’t want to overstep,” Small said during the contentious summer of 2005. “We didn’t want to step on NPB’s toes. But in retrospect, we probably should have brought them into the discussion earlier.”

True colors

There is no mistaking that when the Japanese baseball world considers MLB, it generally sees things worth emulating. Owners see the profits, fans see the physical strength and splendid new ballparks, players see the elite working conditions and competition. Yet, that envy, is often tinted by the kind of racial narcissism that sees Japan’s extra practice and the dedication to small ball as a kind of purity that can rarely be fathomed by outsiders.

Having said that, there are areas where Japan is way ahead of the United States, and professional baseball’s response to the coronavirus illuminates that gap.

Taking a cue from Donald Trump, MLB has been leaking a steady stream of mixed messages, while exploiting the downside of the coronavirus to incite division in the labor force — moving toward a demand that the players take pay cuts and get back to work despite the risks.

No players in NPB have had their salaries docked, all are expected to take part in practice while social distancing.

While the Japanese government was going full steam toward opening the Tokyo Olympics on July 24 until the IOC pulled the plug, NPB, too, was setting new Opening Days for when it would ostensibly be safe to play before crowds. Unlike the United States, no TV network in Japan was proclaiming concern for the virus a hoax, nor did the prime minister ever downplay it as a threat.

Since the Olympics were put in stasis, Japan declared a state of emergency, and NPB began reciting the advice of medical experts, saying it was too early to say when the season would start. Rather than a sense that the health crisis will be accompanied by Ameican-style class warfare, Japanese baseball has remained, well Japanese.

While Japan’s response to the coronavirus has been mediocre, it has been far better than the United States’ effort. And while people in both countries may be looking toward baseball for a sense of optimism, at least baseball in Japan is moving forward toward doing that exactly that — without the extra baggage that MLB is bringing to the table.

NPB goes viral: All-Star eclipse

Nippon Professional Baseball declined to name a date to start its season on Monday after a meeting with their Japanese pro soccer counterparts and health experts but did cancel this year’s all-star series, the Daily Sports reported.

“I regret to announce that we have decided to cancel the All-Star series and the Fresh Star (minor league all-star) game,” commissioner Atsushi Saito said. “This was the 70th year of the competition. There’s no excuse we can offer to the fans who have waited so long and to those in the game.”

At the start of the press conference, Saito said, “It is difficult to determine the opening date at the present time.”

The 12 teams had been eying June 19 as a potential starting date, but could not pull the trigger.

“Even though we couldn’t decide on a date, there are around the world and in Japan, discussions going on about exit strategies. Over the next two weeks, we will carefully monitor the situation. We will make steady preparations and buildup so that we might be able to open the season in the middle of next month.

Although the number of new infections reported in Japan has declined somewhat, the health experts warned the pro sports executives that “the situation remains unpredictable.”

Japan’s season was set to start a week early this year, on March 20, and end two weeks late, to allow for a three-week Olympic break. Since that was abandoned early in March, NPB has twice announced new Opening Day dates only to see those, too, become untenable.

Darvish provides 2nd opinion

Two days after Masahiro Tanaka revealed that “incidents in Florida aside from the coronavirus threat” made him fear for his personal safety, Yu Darvish, said on Youtube Saturday that he was aware of an increase in racial harassment against Asians since the coronavirus outbreak although he hadn’t been the target of any in Arizona.

“The problem is that in regards to Asians and Asian Americans, there have been reports of an increase in racially motivated things going on,” Darvish said. “Since President Trump started calling it the ‘Chinese Virus’ there has been an uptick. There has always been a little discrimination against Asians before this and of course against blacks, too, but it seems like there is more now.”

The section translated starts at 4:10.

“What really concerns me is that here there is a gun culture. It’s no worry at the moment, but what about a year from now or two, if there is not enough food or people are out of work and don’t have money, that’s a scary thought.”

“As far as racial incidents go, I’m 196 centimeters and weigh 102 or 103 kilograms and I don’t know but I might not appear to by your typical Asian. If I’m at the supermarket, people might look at me funny but if they do, I haven’t noticed, so I don’t feel right now there are any issues. But my kids have Asian faces and down the road, the thought of that is a little scary.”

The Kyodo News story is HERE.

Always another side to the story

A day after Masahiro Tanaka revealed that he was concerned for his personal safety in Florida after the Yankees’ spring training shut down, a few “people” ridiculed that reasoning on Twitter.

There have been racially motivated incidents targetting Asians, because there are always morons, and when people call COVID-19 the “China Virus” some of those morons feel more liberated to act on their darker impulses. But those who say Tanaka had no reason for concern is saying they know what he felt, saw and perceived, which obviously, they don’t.

One fairly unforgiving response slammed descriptions of Tanaka’s wife, who used to sing with a pop group in Japan, as “a superstar I’ve never heard of,” which is like attacking Melania Trump because you can’t stand her narcissistic husband or Michelle Obama because you dislike Democrats.

Another response:

But justin@J_Ghxst wrote: On behalf of Americans/Yankee fans with common sense, we hope you are safe and do not look down on us because of these people. The people who are harassing you because of coronavirus are not smart at all and do not represent us. Thank You Masa

Why people have to act like trolls is beyond me.