The J. League hit pause after one round. The B. League went dark with one-third of the season left. Japanese baseball hasn’t even started.
Sports has been awash in postponements and cancellations in leagues around the world — the NBA got the ball rolling when it paused its season in March — since the coronavirus outbreak began to reach pandemic levels earlier this year.
Even among all that, Summer Koshien just hits differently.
For the first time since World War II, the National High School Baseball Championship will not be played. It was officially canceled on Wednesday, when the Japan High School Baseball Federation decided the risks posed by COVID-19 were too great. The tournament was scheduled for Aug. 10 to 25 at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. The spring edition was canceled in March.
“In order to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus and for the safety and health of players, officials and fans, our conclusion was we could not avoid canceling both the 49 regional tournaments that were planned from late June to early August and the national tournament, which was scheduled to start Aug. 10,” Asahi Shinbun president and tournament chairman Masataka Watanabe said during a news conference Wednesday.
There are some who disagree with the decision. There are some, like Koshien legend and current Seibu Lions pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who feel it came too early.
It was, though, the right decision.
If pro sports leagues don’t have things completely figured out yet, and the few up and running are taking precautions beyond what most high schools can provide, then how could the tournament safely proceed?
Just because it was the right and safe decision, doesn’t make it any less of a bitter pill to swallow.
It’s not easy to measure the blow this is to the Japanese sports world. Other than being suspended from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II, this will be just the third time the event has been canceled since beginning in 1915. The Hanshin Tigers, who occupy Koshien Stadium, are booted out each summer — taking an extended road trip dubbed the “Road of Death” — to make room for the tournament.
The event is as much a part of summer as fireworks and local festivals. Teams march in during the opening ceremony and buzz-cutted players bow to each other before and after games. Many players wear all-white uniforms that end up dirtied by head-first slides into first base.
The air is filled with the heavy brass of the bands and full-throated exhortations of the cheering sections. The tournament is so revered players on losing teams will often tearfully scoop dirt into plastic bags to save as mementos. At the end, the champions celebrate on the mound and there is a pageantry-filled closing ceremony. In a country that so reveres ritual and tradition, Summer Koshien is steeped in both.
Many of baseball’s biggest names, such as Sadaharu Oh, Hideki Matsui, Masahiro Tanaka, and of course Matsuzaka, took their first steps into stardom at the tournament.
“Trying to think of myself in that position, I can’t even come up with the words to say to the players,” Matsuzaka said in a statement to Nikkan Sports. “They’re the only ones who know how tough this is. There’s no answer for how you deal with this and move forward. Koshien means that much.”
That’s where it really hurts from a sporting context. Fans can simply watch next year. But the players, especially the seniors, saw a chance to reach the tournament end in a meeting room instead of on the field.
Yokohama BayStars pitcher Yasuaki Yamasaki, speaking to Nikkan Sports, relayed words of encouragement.
“It’s painful when you think about it for the high schoolers,” he said. “It’s hard to make a simple comment, but the efforts you’ve made should not go to waste. I hope they continue on with their heads held high throughout their lives.”
For some, this is basically the end. Not all will play in college or the industrial or independent leagues. Even fewer will ever pull on an NPB jersey. Similiar pain is being felt by other high school and college seniors, across many sports, around the world.
At the same time, unlike the J. League, or NPB, or the NBA, these are high school kids and there was some level of risk involved in gathering teams from all over the country in one place.
So even if it was early, cancellation was the safe call. It’s doubtful, though, that makes anyone feel better about it.
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