Baseball is back — at least in Taiwan. Perhaps in South Korea, too, pretty soon. In Japan, though, the wait continues.
While the rest of the sports world is mostly at a standstill because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese Professional Baseball League and Korea Baseball Organization are taking a few steps towards normalcy, and perhaps even giving Japanese fans a little hope.
As NPB teams continue to practice in limbo, there is actual regular-season baseball being played in Taiwan, where the season began April 12.
There were no fans in the stands — unless you count the mannequins, cardboard cutouts and robots the Rakuten Monkeys dressed up in team gear — because of COVID-19, but it was otherwise business as usual for the only baseball league in the world playing actual games right now.
"They're pretty much doing everything, just without fans," said Rob Liu, who runs the English-language CPBL website, CPBL STATS. "When the hitters are batting, you've got their theme song blasting at full volume in the background and there are cheerleaders dancing in front of the empty stands. It's pretty much the same thing, everything as it is, without the fans."
On Twitter, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen hailed the sport's return and encouraged fans from English-speaking countries to tune in (over the internet), writing in part, "I hope you’ll help us cheer them on no matter where you are!" She also linked to the 2020 season guide on Liu's website.
"It's a honor," he said about the post. "That's about all I can say, it's an honor. It's a surprise and it's really good."
The CPBL, which consists of five teams, was originally slated to begin March 14 before being postponed due to COVID-19. Taiwan's efforts to contain the virus eventually opened the door for the league to begin.
"They actually moved it twice," Liu said of opening day. "The first time was for the Olympic qualifier, because the Olympic qualifier was delayed due to the coronavirus concern. They pushed it from March 14 to March 28.
"Then around that time, we had a long holiday coming. So I guess the CDC sort of saw it as potentially leading to another spike in terms of active cases. So I guess they advised against that, so the the league just pushed it back a few more weeks down to April 11."
Rain pushed the start back one more day, but the CPBL is now up and running.
In South Korea, KBO may not be far behind.
"Barring any drastic change in the recent downtrend in COVID-19 cases, the preseason will begin April 21, followed by the regular season sometime in early May," Yoo Jee-ho of Yonhap News Agency told The Japan Times.
The league's original opening day was March 28.
"The league will meet with team presidents on April 21 to determine the start date," Yoo said. "Could be anywhere between May 1 and May 5, I think. And early games will be played without fans. For how long, I don't think anyone knows at this point."
The plan is contingent on the COVID-19 situation and Yoo says things could change if South Korea extends its nationwide social distancing measures.
"If it gets extended, then the KBO will probably have to push back the season again," he said. "But if the government says it's OK for people to kind of go out, then the KBO will likely start during the first week of May."
Even without regular-season games, KBO teams are keeping fans engaged with intrasquad contests streamed over the internet and broadcast on television.
"That's the only live sport in the country, and even though fans can't attend games, they can watch it on TV or online for free," Yoo said. "They're getting their baseball fix that way."
For Japanese fans, the situation shows there is light at the end of the tunnel if the government eventually gets a handle on the pandemic the way Taiwan and South Korea largely have.
NPB officials, meanwhile, should be taking notes and learning whatever they can from their neighbors' path back to the diamond in landscapes still being impacted by COVID-19.
That includes raising the league's profile abroad, especially in North America, where MLB may be even further away from starting.
Once it's safe for NPB clubs to get on the field, even for practice, some sort of outreach should be high on their list, even if it's only making intrasquad games viewable outside of the country, as both the CPBL and KBO are doing.
The CPBL, in some ways, is doing that and then some.
"Right now (Wednesday night), they are doing an English broadcast (of a live game) on Eleven Sports Taiwan's Twitter channel," Liu said.
For Japan, the wait goes on until its safe to play again. Until then, it would be wise for NPB and its fans to keep tabs on the roadmap the CPBL and KBO are laying down.
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