The return of pro baseball to Tokyo Dome on Saturday night was greeted by a jarring silence.
There were no songs or chants to welcome the players to the plate nor the blaring of trumpets to provide the familiar soundtrack to the NPB experience.
Instead, it was a decidedly different feel at the ballpark as the defending Central League champion Yomiuri Giants faced the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in a Big Egg rendered completely devoid of fans by the coronavirus outbreak. The Swallows beat the Giants 5-3.
It was a far cry from the Giants’ average attendance of 42,643 during the 2019 regular season.
Japanese baseball announced on Wednesday spring games would be played without fans in the stands in order to comply with government wishes to limit large gatherings to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
So as games, which had taken place in Miyazaki and Okinawa since the start of camp, mostly returned to teams’ regular home parks (though some had been moved from regional stadiums), fans were forced to stay away.
“It didn’t change what I had to do,” said Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano. “But as I think about it a little more, under this sort of circumstance I realize I do get a boost from hearing the fans cheering.”
The clubs are also taking precautions with their own staffers and the media.
At Tokyo Dome, media members were asked to wear masks, spray their hands with sanitizer placed near the entrance and have their temperature taken before being allowed in.
The measures didn’t have an effect on the game on the diamond.
“It was a different environment,” said Yomiuri outfielder Israel Mota. “But out on the field, where we’re competing, it wasn’t too different.”
Sugano showed off his new pitching form — he now makes a semicircle with his arms before coming to rest with his glove in front of his face — and allowed one run and struck out four in five innings. Mota gave him a lead with a two-run homer in the fourth.
Kazuma Okamoto also homered, connecting on a solo shot in the sixth.
“We just came together and focused,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “We didn’t consider changing our style. Fortunately there was a TV broadcast, so I think the fans are watching us.”
Yakult’s Yasutaka Shiomi had a single and triple in his first two at-bats and scored on an RBI grounder by Taishi Hiraoka in the fifth. Daisei Yoshida doubled in a run in the eighth before Norichika Aoki tied the score at 3-all with a two-run homer. Yakult put two more runs on the board in the ninth to take the lead.
The game was the same, but the atmosphere was different.
Rather than the cheers of the fans, shouts of encouragement from players in the dugout echoed across the stadium. Batters were introduced by the PA announcer as usual, but there was no walk-up music for the Giants players, nor anything pumped into the park between innings. Yomiuri’s cheerleaders, Team Venus, were absent, as was Giabbit, the main mascot.
As Mota’s towering two-run shot approached the stands in left, there were no shouts of excitement, just the ball landing in the bleachers with a thud.
Instead of a vibrant crowd full of life and color, thousands of empty blue seats provided the backdrop to the contest.
The rest of the spring schedule will also be played under this pall, as Japan continues to grapple with the coronavirus and tries to limit its spread. In all, 72 games will be affected.
Baseball is far from the only sport to be impacted by the virus.
The J. League announced on Tuesday that it will postpone all matches until March 15. Rugby’s Top League has postponed its next two rounds of action and the B. League will postpone basketball games until March 11. Numerous events have been canceled or delayed outside Japan as well, with a major example being the Chinese Grand Prix, which had been set for April 17-19 in Shanghai.
The last time NPB held closed-door games was after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, when some practice games were closed to the public. This is the first time official spring games have been held without fans.
So far, the regular season is still slated to start on March 20 and with it, the return of the fans.
“I think when the fans are here, it gives me motivation,” Mota said.