The oddest thing about the preseason game the Yomiuri Giants and Tokyo Yakult Swallows played at Tokyo Dome on Saturday night — and really the same could be said about all the other games over the weekend too — was the lack of fans.
The usual NPB atmosphere in the stands was wholly nonexistent, a fact punctuated each time a home run or foul ball banged off an empty seat. The only signs of life off the playing field were the screams of the players in the dugout and the presence of media members in the press box and around the venue.
Stadiums across NPB were devoid of fans over the weekend due to the COVID-19 outbreak and government appeals to limit large gatherings. The stands will remain empty for the remainder of the preseason as a result.
As strange as it was to see an NPB game held under those circumstances, for the players on the field, it was business as usual.
Even though they noticed the eerily silent atmosphere in the ballparks, it didn’t seem to have a major effect on what was happening on the diamond.
“I’m always so nervous that I only really see the catcher anyway,” Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano said, before noting the cheering of the fans does provide a boost.
On the whole, as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the sports world, baseball has — thus far — been fairly lucky. The schedule is still intact, the regular season is unaltered and spring games are being played.
While teams have canceled fan events and autograph sessions, their actual on-field preparation for the season has mostly been able to proceed as normal.
As Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said after Saturday’s game, “we didn’t even consider changing the way we play.”
“We have our own battles,” Hara continued, “even if there are no fans.”
Baseball teams are taking precautions to protect themselves amid the virus fears. In addition to playing games behind closed doors — meant to protect both the fans and players — teams are undertaking various measures with their own non-playing staffers. Media members attending games have also been asked to wear masks and allow staff to take their temperatures before being allowed into stadiums.
“This is something we’re doing together as a team,” said Yomiuri pitcher Angel Sanchez. “This is the policy for everyone.
Unlike players in the B. League, J. League and Japan Rugby Top League, where games have been postponed, NPB players are still able to compete in actual contests, even if it is only spring training. For them, there is no uncertainty about when games will be made up and no need to figure out ways to remain sharp over an extended break. On the business side, there is lost revenue, but at least not from regular-season games.
All in all, NPB players, but not NPB fans, have gotten off relatively easy so far.
This year was already going to be an odd one because of the shuffling necessary to work around the Olympics. The coronavirus popping up put another land mine in baseball’s path, one the league has sidestepped so far.
The teams may have to play without the extra adrenaline of a roaring crowd right now, but that, hopefully, will return when the season starts on March 20.
“It’s really lonely to see the stands empty,” Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters slugger Sho Nakata was quoted as saying by NHK. “It makes me think about how important the fans are. I’m happy I hit a home run, but I wasn’t really satisfied.”
Right now, NPB players can at least still play. Maybe in a few weeks, there will actually be people there watching.