Japanese pro baseball is trying to open its season in a responsible way, but that does not mean it’s easy. This was made clear on Wednesday, when one of its 2019 MVPs, on one of the nation’s more popular teams tested positive.
Compared to the United States, Japan’s COVID0-19 response has been fairly apolitical, meaning disinformation has not been a huge problem here. But even still, this is a tricky issue here and something that does not bode well for American baseball this year.
Officials rushed in to declare that everything was normal, and a top epidemiologist concurred, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning about whether playing baseball in empty stadiums is still feasible.
Hayato Sakamoto, the Yomiuri Giants’ team captain and one of the faces of the Japanese game was reported to be asymptomatic. He and a teammate had PRC tests taken because the Giants asked everyone in the organization who comes in contact with players to have antibody tests taken.
The Giants were quick to point out that no one would have known about Sakamoto or Oshiro’s brushes with COVID-19 had they not undergone team-wide testing. Because epidemiology specialists ruled the players to be low risks to infect others, Nippon Professional Baseball, which has a long history of accommodating the Giants, said “Nothing to see here.”
That may be true. There is no indication that results are being fudged, but there are questions about how far teams are willing to go to make sure things are done in a safe manner. The PR-conscious Giants ordered everyone connected to the team who had come into contact with Sakamoto and Oshiro to undergo a PCR test within 24 hours.
But the Seibu Lions, who played the Giants on Tuesday at Tokyo Dome in a practice game in said essentially, “we were not told it would be necessary, so we are not having tests done.” The Lions and Giants were due to play another game on Wednesday but the Giants canceled it.
There’s the problem.
Japan has avoided doing rigorous testing, not because of a lack of capacity but because testing would increase the known number of infections. This has partly been a policy to put a good spin on the government’s handling of the situation although it most certainly started as a way of protecting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Japan in which the nation had invested huge sums.
People with symptoms have been unable to get tests until they’re really, really sick. People have died at home because they were told to self-quarantine and stop bothering doctors and government COVID 19 hotline operators.
That’s the social picture. But there are other questions.
1. Why wait to retest?
Sakamoto, Oshiro and the two others were reportedly given the PCR tests on Tuesday evening after they played against the Lions. But the antibody tests, which are said to produce very quick results were supposedly completed by Sunday.
What took the Giants so long to get PCR tests for their four COVID-19 candidates? Did nobody at the team bother to find out about the antibody test results until after a game was played?
Whatever it was that allowed the two to play after they were believed to have been infected raises a flag. Teams are trying to establish new procedures and manuals so it just might have been a case of something falling through the cracks.
So nobody’s perfect, and certainly most people aren’t perfect the first time they try out a new system. But if the Giants are the team pushing hardest to have a system in place, and they dropped the ball, what does that say for everyone else? NPB is trying hard but it isn’t easy, and no one should be fooled into thinking it is.
Taiwan has managed it because of national preparation and quick aggressive responses, but Japan is not Taiwan, or even South Korea for that matter.
2. What about NPB’s strict guidelines?
NPB is in the middle of formulating strict quarantine and isolation guidelines that would keep anyone testing positive away from their teammates for a long time.
These sounded harsh but practical. Any player or team staff member testing positive would be required to stay home until two weeks after testing negative. The first news that those guidelines were too impractical to teams whose job is to win games first and foremost was when the Giants told people they expected Sakamoto and Oshiro to return as soon as they tested negative.
To that end the two were hospitalized so they can be tested daily. The guidelines, which were due out a few days ago, are apparently still being hammered out.
NPB’s secretary general Atsushi Ihara, a former Yomiuri employee, said nothing that was learned Wednesday was going to change peoples’ thinking about starting the season on June 19 as planned. It should be noted that Ihara was a chief actor in the plot that overthrew former commissioner Ryozo Kato–when Kato wouldn’t introduce a livelier ball the teams wanted, Ihara got a few others to conspire behind the commissioner’s back to change the ball without his knowledge.
The hidden game of baseball and MLB
All this points to is that despite NPB working hard to appear to lay all its cards on the table and be open about how it will attack the coronavirus issue, things are not as transparent as they seem.
Even in a country where the government is not a huge spreader of disinformation and COVID-19 has not become a political football, nothing is exactly as it seems. Owners have declined to talk about financial losses, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a concern.
In the United States, where reopening is a political as well as an economic issue, it will be far harder to get straight answers to complicated questions. If anyone says it will be safe and feasible to play baseball even behind closed doors in the United States this year, there is an excellent chance they are talking out their ass.