Play ball: Baseball starts after 3-month delay as sport returns to Japan
The Japanese sporting world took a massive step forward ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games as the baseball season finally got under way after a three-month wait on Friday (19 June) - the country's first sport to reopen since the coronavirus broke out.
The 2020 Nippon Professional Baseball campaign was originally scheduled to start 20 March but COVID-19 raged throughout Japan, forcing the delay with several players testing positive for the virus along the way.
In the Central League, two-time defending champions Yomiuri Giants edged the Hanshin Tigers 3-2 while the Hiroshima Carp beat the DeNA BayStars 5-1. The Yakult Swallows took on the Chunichi Dragons at home.
In the Pacific League, the three-time reigning Japan Series champions SoftBank Hawks walked off with a 2-1 win over the Lotte Marines in 10 innings and the Seibu Lions thumped the Nippon Ham Fighters 3-0. The Rakuten Eagles clobbered the Orix BlueWave 9-1.
But on this night, wins and losses were secondary as the Japanese Boys of Summer provided much-needed relief and entertainment to a tired nation exasperated by the fight against the virus.
"A long pennant race has finally started", said Giants manager Hara Tatsunori, whose team also won the franchise's 6,000th game - the first by a Japanese club.
"Getting off to a good start means a lot on a day when all kinds of emotions are running through. I'm really happy about that".
More than just a game
While Friday's games were held without fans and high-fives, they were nothing short of a breath of fresh air - and the rare bit of positive news the public has been craving for in the host country of next summer’s Games.
NPB Commissioner Saito Atsushi said in a statement that baseball had a responsibility to help lift the spirits of the country.
“The coronavirus pandemic has not been contained yet”, Saito said. “2020 will be a special year. We need to finish the season and carry out the Japan Series. We are on a mission to build on the experience from this year to the next.
“We could not be happier if we can bring smiles back on the face of the people and positivity to society. We hope baseball starting the season can serve as a model for other sport and entertainment in reopening during these times”. - Nippon Professional Baseball Commissioner Saito Atsushi
This regular season has been reduced to 120 games, 23 games fewer than usual. There will be no All-Star game and inter-league play, with the Japan Series starting from 21 Nov.
NPB announced on Friday that every player, manager and coach on all 12 teams have tested negative for the virus.
Following in baseball’s footsteps, football will reopen with the J.League first division kicking off 4 July. Both sports are expected to let fans back in from 10 July, when the government green-lights the holding of entertainment events with a capacity of up to 5,000.
Ahead of the game at Tokyo Dome, where the empty seats were covered with orange Giants jerseys instead of fans, Yomiuri skipper Tatsunori Hara was grateful the season had found a way to start.
“Today, 19 June, 2020, baseball opens” Hara said. “I would like to thank not just those associated with the game but everyone, period.
“Above all, I tip my hat off to the players who have worked hard for this day. I wish them the best of luck.”
Added Hara’s Tigers counterpart Yano Akihiro, “We owe this opening day to the doctors who advised us in fighting the virus; everyone at NPB; and all those who helped make this day happen.
“During the season, I believe there will be tough times and things may not always work out the way we want them to be. But we need to keep our chins up if and when such times come and stay positive”.