Former NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato used to joke that Japanese baseball was similar to a large boat in the middle of the ocean.
You can make it change directions, sure, but it's going to be a slow and labored process.
Kato has been gone since 2013, but as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the sentiment rings as true as it ever did. The difference now is, while NPB officials may still be at the controls, the coronavirus is most assuredly the captain now.
That seems to have finally gotten through to the men who are trying to call the shots. After the latest meeting between medical experts and the joint task force set up by NPB and the J. League, NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito has given up on staging games in April.
He may have, after over a month, also come to realize a full 143-game season might not be in the cards either. It might have taken awhile, but reality has set in.
"At the beginning, I had a strong desire to play 143 games, but I think we have to consider reducing the number of games to some extent," he said Friday.
That's a shift from all the scenarios the league said it was sifting through in its search to find a sweet spot to start the 2020 campaign that would preserve the full 143-game schedule. It's also a change in tone from all the false starts NPB kept giving. First, opening day would shift from March 20 to around April 10, and teams would play practice games. Then it was going to be April 24 and practice games would be stopped for awhile.
It seems NPB has finally decided to stop throwing darts at a calendar and wait to address the situation while being hopeful of an opening day in May.
The league brass should also get comfortable with something other than a 143-game season and postseason. Saito said the priority was on regular-season games, so 2020 could be a throwback year where the pennant winners advance to the Japan Series. Or, the league could play 130 games, or 120 or whatever it can make work, including cutting out the interleague schedule. All options should be at least talked through.
Even if the season starts in May, to play a full schedule would require making up over a month of games. This in a country where the rainy season already disrupts the schedule each year — not to mention the status of some stadiums in November due to pre-existing contracts and also the weather.
There's also the health of the players, especially the pitchers, to consider, even if the season stretches into late November. That's a lot of games to play in an condensed time frame and a whole lot of traveling, especially in the Pacific League, where trips to Hokkaido are on the docket.
That's assuming the season can even start in mid-May, because you'd need to give the players, who entered camp on Feb. 1 and have already played a preseason, time to ramp their preparations back up. The league would also have to be as certain as possible about the situation at large, because the worst-case scenario would be to rush back only for a player or staffer to become infected with the virus.
After weeks of 143-or-bust, NPB officials seem to have finally arrived at the sobering reality a full slate might not be possible.
It's not as if 143 is a magic number. The season was 144 games from 2007-2014. From 1990-2006, there were as few as 130 and as many as 146 (depending on if you were in Central or Pacific League). There's a revenue hit for sure, and there's no downplaying that. Still, playing a good portion of the league year beats playing none.
Everyone would like to see a full 143-game season. Fans miss baseball and sports can often offer a release in trying times.
But abnormal times call for abnormal measures. As far as a 143-game season goes, there may still be a way, but it looks like rough waters ahead.
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