Japan's Second Pushback of Baseball's Return a Cautionary Tale for MLB

John Hickey

Will the Oakland A’s and the rest of Major League Baseball get back to games as planned by June 1?

Maybe. It’s the plan or at least the hope, assuming the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is in under control, which is by no means certain.

Word this week out of Japan offers a cautionary tale. According to The Japan Times, the presidents of the six teams that comprise the six-team Pacific League – one of Japan’s two highest-level pro baseball leagues – agreed in an online meeting that it will be difficult to open the season on April 24.

Both the Pacific League and Central League had been due to open on March 20, but that was pushed back by a month in the wake of the global pandemic. The owners shut down spring training for a time, then resumed games played in front of empty stadiums. It was a push to get baseball back as quickly as possible.

And on March 18, the governor of Osaka went on Twitter to declare victory over the pandemic conquered.

Since then, two things have happened. Despite all precautions Three members of the Hanshin Tigers have tested positive for COVID-19 last week. And then came the projections in The New York Times that Japan, which had avoided the worst of the pandemic, was due for a major COVID-19 explosion.

Nippon Professional Baseball, the Japanese equivalent of Major League Baseball, tried to keep its players safe. According to The Japan Times, teams were quarantined and temperatures of players, staff and media were taken.

Representatives of Pacific and Central league teams were due to meet on Friday, and a further delay to the 143-game season’s scheduled start is expected to be suggested.

“Currently, the number of cases is increasing in Tokyo, and ballplayers have been infected, too,” Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks president Yoshimitsu Goto told The Japan Times. “We are looking at this very carefully. We are looking at a new opening day (date), even if it means not playing a 143-game schedule.”

And Japan’s baseball commissioner Atsushi Saito told the Associated Press on Friday that a delay was likely.

“Unfortunately, things are getting worse now,” Saito said. “We’ll have a meeting with all 12 teams, but it appears like we’ll have to be prepared for an extension (to the postponement).”

David Lennon of Newsday reached out to Major League Baseball Players association boss Tony Clark, asking him how MLB could avoid a similar scenario in a return of the sport in 2020.

“The work that is being done to learn more and more about the virus itself is invariably helping, Clark said. “Not just athletes, but as citizens, we appreciate what we should and shouldn’t be doing or could and couldn’t be doing. That information is new daily.

“The information in our communications with the CDC and the infectious disease specialists and other experts that we’ve been in contact with are going to help us understand and appreciate the best processes and protocols to put in place as we move forward. Particularly as we look to get guys back to playing on the field and fans in the ballpark.”