Baseball / Japanese Baseball

NPB fans feeling impact of COVID-19 as season gets underway

by Kaz Nagatsuka

STAFF WRITER

Ryota Kurahashi is thankful the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t affected his daily life too much.

Except that it’s taken baseball away from him.

The 44-year-old is a longtime member of the Seiha-kai ouendan (cheering group), which supports the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. He’s been a passionate supporter of the Central League club since he was a boy.

“The biggest difference has been the fact that there hasn’t been baseball because, for me, baseball has been part of my life,” Kurahashi told The Japan Times in a phone interview on Tuesday, three days before the 2020 NPB season finally began, albeit without fans in the stands. “So I’ve felt like I had a hole in my heart.

In 2011, the start of the season was delayed by a month because of the Great East Japan Earthquake. But the situation was different this time, because opening day, originally slated for March 20, kept being pushed back.

“At one point, I thought the season might not start this year,” Kurahashi said. “So compared with (the worst-case scenario), I think they’ve done a good job of managing to do it.” For members of groups like Kurahashi’s Seiha, the postponement of the season led to many changes.

They’ve already had to adjust to the revision of the 2020 schedule. Kurahashi said he’s had to rearrange his travel accommodations, such as hotels and flight tickets that had already been purchased. He said he usually books flights as early as a half-year in advance to save money.

Even now with the season having kicked off, Kurahashi and his fellow Seiha members are left scratching their heads about their travel plans, since it’s still uncertain as to when teams will allow fans to start attending games.

The Central and Pacific Leagues have now released their entire schedules, which allows people like Kurahashi to at least think a little further ahead.

“So we think maybe we can get in from around August and September,” Kurahashi said. “I think I will have to start booking soon.” Meanwhile, while he’s happy baseball is back, Kurahashi appears to have mixed emotions about the unusual 2020 campaign, which is forcing everyone to adjust to different protocols because of the threat of the coronavirus.

Even when fans are eventually allowed into stadiums, they’ll likely be asked to refrain from conventional cheering, which includes shouting, singing and playing instruments. It’s certainly going to have an impact on the ouendan, where fans sing personalized songs for each player that often also feature trumpets and drums.

“It would be weird for a cheering section like us to just sit there and watch,” Kurahashi said. “And we’ve discussed what we can do between ourselves.

“We’ve come up with ideas that maybe we can cheer with just our voice and things like that.” The Yokohama native also worries about the shops, restaurants and bars around Yokohama Stadium, the home of the BayStars, which he says are able to “make a living” partially because there are baseball games and have yet to face the full economic impact from the virus outbreak.

“Once fans are allowed in the stadium, we would like to use those places as much as we can,” he said.

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