MLB Can't Afford to Come Back Too Soon

There are lessons for MLB to learn by watching what's happened with Nippon Pro Baseball in Japan.
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The efforts of Nippon Pro Baseball to resume playing are underscoring concerns of Major League Baseball officials about the difficulty of a potential return in the wake of the pandemic.

Teams in Japan began playing practice games in empty ballparks on March 20 with an Opening Day target of April 24. Within a week, three Hanshin Tigers players tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the team to order players and staff to self-quarantine.

After the announcement, NPB secretary general Atsushi Ihara told reporters regarding the proposed April 24 Opening Day, “We do not plan to reconsider the date because of this.” But last night Sports Nippon in Japan reported that officials are now considering a later start.

The sequence of events in Japan reminded MLB officials of the challenges associated with any potential return to the field. While MLB is considering many proposals of what a 2020 season might look like—all are speculation with no start date in sight—MLB has little to no appetite for playing games in empty stadiums or for a postseason that extends into December, according to a league source.

Japan had 2,874 coronavirus cases as of Wednesday morning, per The New York Times, far fewer on a per-capita basis than the United States. But Japan has seen a spike in recent days, prompting calls for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a state of emergency.

NPB has been screening players, staff and media as they enter ballparks for practice games. They have their temperature taken and told to avoid contact with others.

Five days after the practice games began, Hanshin pitcher Shintaro Fujinami complained of a loss of the sense of smell. He was examined and tested for the virus. He and two teammates who had dined with him were found to be positive. The Tigers suspended practices at least through this Wednesday.

The Hiroshima Carp sent players home last Thursday upon hearing the news, but resumed practices two days later. The Nippon Ham Fighters have been living in a dormitory-type complex where the players receive all meals.

MLB estimates players will need about four weeks of training before a season can begin, similar to the timeline in place by NPB. In Arizona, where 15 teams train, governor Doug Ducey on Monday issued a stay-at-home order through April 30.

The NPB experience in the last week is a reminder of the challenges ahead. Even without spectators, the risk associated with players and staff gathering remains. Part of the risk is the transmission of the coronavirus through asymptomatic people. As the case with Fujinami and the Tigers illustrated, one case puts an entire team into quarantine, making team training and/or games impossible.