Having set July 10 as the day from when fans will be able to attend Japanese pro baseball games, executives have gone from “We’re not even thinking about getting fans into the park in these dire times” to “Of course we want the maximum number of fans in the park from Day 1.”
And now that MLB and its union have agreed to start their season, they should be looking to see how Japan has handled it and the potential pitfalls that await.
Hawks go 1st
The SoftBank Hawks, who will host the Rakuten Eagles in a six-game series from July 7, will open the doors to between 1,500 and 5,000 invited fans for the final three games at PayPay Dome. The Hawks said they will sell 5,000 tickets through a lottery for their games between July 21 and 31.
From Aug. 1, when teams have agreed to admit about half their stadiums’ capacities, the team will sell up to 20,000 seats, first come, first served.
They were quickly followed by other clubs as teams gear up to sell tickets and start cutting their losses.
House of cards
To its credit Nippon Professional Baseball has worked hard to establish testing and quarantine protocols with the help of leading public health experts. And compared to the United States, the situation is reasonably stable.
But stable is not safe, and the government is still encouraging social distancing, although one wouldn’t know it around the closest major station to my office. Shimbashi, especially the north side, is filled with tiny eating and drinking joints. Whenever there is breaking news at night and TV crews need man-on-the-street interviews, they flock to the “steam locomotive” plaza north of the station where people are constantly milling about.
Walking through Shimbashi is seeing a world of people determined not to care about the risk to their health or others. Tokyo isn’t a hot spot at the moment, but it sure looks like it’s not far removed from being one.
The government of Trumpist prime minister Shinzo Abe has steadfastly kept the brakes on testing, so there is no real feel for how bad the situation is. On Wednesday, Tokyo announced 55 confirmed infections, its highest total since May 5.
So while things appear normal on the surface, there has been no concerted effort to test and control the virus, so we’re all guessing, and crossing our fingers that this house of cards doesn’t come tumbling down with the help of baseball teams rumbling to get paying fans back in the seats.
Major trouble on the horizon
While Japan’s situation appears fragile, seeing the majors talk about opening up when minor leaguers and team staff are producing positive test results and infection rates in many parts of the United States is positively scary.
At least in Japan, the virus has not become politicized.
Getting back to work is not seen by anyone as a patriotic duty. Wearing a mask is not a sign of political dissent. Through MLB owners’ greed, the politicization of the virus and scientific research as a whole and the surging rates of infection, and MLB may need a tremendous amount of luck to avoid being part of a public health catostrophe.
No fans will be in the stands, but that won’t stop people from flocking to ballparks located in neighborhoods with bars, as Japan has shown.
Crowding outside closed doors
Even without fans in the stands, fans are being drawn to watering holes to crowd together and support their teams with like-minded fans. This comes at a time when, according to the ministry of health labor and welfare, Japan and Tokyo in particular is experiencing a gradual increase in the number of daily infections.
On Wednesday, the Yukan Fuji reported on the problem of people opting to socialize rather than social distance and suggested that by packing into bars, the fans were far more likely to be exposed to the virus than at ballparks.
The story also showed fans flocking to the stadium gates to catch glimpses of whatever they can, without paying much attention to social distancing.