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Shintaro Fujinami, Japanese Baseball Season Likely Delayed by COVID-19

Shintaro Fujinami, Japanese Baseball Season Likely Delayed by COVID-19

What’s unfolding in Japan is exactly the kind of thing that Major League Baseball was trying to avoid when it put its season on hold.

Three players on the Hanshin Tigers, a Nippon Professional Baseball team in Osaka, have tested positive for COVID-19, and now the start of the regular season, scheduled for April 24, is on hold.

While all of this is going on, former-Dodger and current Hanshin Tiger, Jerry Sands, is fighting for a roster spot, which, much like the state of play across the rest of the sports world, is far from a sure thing. In Japan, only four foreign-born players are allowed on per club, with a combination of pitchers and position players required. Please check my March 21 piece on Sands’ baseball journey through foreign lands here.

“Obviously [COVID-19 is] worrisome because it has affected our team directly, but at the same point in time, it’s everywhere," said Sands via text. "All the other teams are preparing for the season to start in a few weeks so I want to be ready too."

But Sands will have to wait. One of the Tigers' players infected with the novel coronavirus is the one-time teenage phenom, pitcher Shintaro Fujinami. To give you an idea of how good the now 25-year-old right-hander Fujinami was once projected to be, he was as highly sought-after in the 2013 Japanese draft as Shohei Ohtani, the current two-way Angels' star. Over his first three seasons in the game, from 2013-2015, Fujinami went 35-21 with a 2.87 ERA and 519 strikeouts in 499 innings. He's struggled to remain healthy consistently since. And now he's slowed by COVID-19.

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On March 24, Fujinami told a team trainer he couldn’t smell his coffee, according to a Japanese news outletThe Asahi Shimbun. Catcher Kenya Nagasaka, 25, and outfielder Hayata Ito, 30, reportedly told the team on March 26 that they both lost their sense of taste. All three men were tested and found to be positive for the coronavirus. This likely stemmed from a recent dinner party on March 14, according to Japanese baseball writer Jim Allen.

As for Sands and his family, the former major leaguer remains cautiously optimistic. Sands said he, his wife Morgan and their two young boys, Eli and Tucker, are doing fine. The team has asked Sands and his foreign-born teammates, who all stay in the same apartment complex, to remain indoors as much as possible and to not interact with one another for the time being.

“They are hoping it’s just the three guys but they keep checking with everyone to make sure no one has symptoms,” Sands said. “Honestly I don’t see much change from the norm around here. It is nothing like the U.S. with quarantining and social distancing. People seem to be washing hands and wearing masks but otherwise life is still going on.”

A meeting of the Japanese baseball clubs is scheduled for Friday. We'll know more about the opening of the NPB season then.

Jake Reiner is a native-Angeleno and is currently a sports and news reporter for KCBS/KCAL, Channels 2&9, where he has covered the Dodgers, Lakers, Chargers, and most recently traveled with the Rams for the entire season as the beat reporter for KCBS.

Photo courtesy of glasgow's finest, via Flickr/Creative Commons.