Japanese Baseball

Fans welcomed back into NPB stadiums as COVID-19 precautions eased

by Jason Coskrey and Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff writers

Fans were greeted by a simple message when they arrived at Zozo Marine Stadium on Friday afternoon.

Welcome back.

Japanese baseball was forced to begin behind closed doors on June 19 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but on Friday NPB clubs across Japan were finally allowed to play in front of fans again.

In Chiba, supporters of the Chiba Lotte Marines and Seibu Lions were eager to get back to the ballpark.

“We are worried about the coronavirus, but we’re definitely excited to be here today," said Yasuhiro Kojima, a 38-year-old Lions fan who attended the game with his wife and two children, including son Yuya, a Marines fan.

"I think it won't be the same because of the circumstances inside the stadium, but I'd like to also bring my family once the pandemic settles down."

Yuya Kojima, wearing a Brandon Laird jersey, just seemed happy to be there.

"I’m excited to be able to see a game live," he said.

Despite a rising number of cases in some areas, Tokyo reported 243 on Friday, NPB has gone ahead with its plans to allow teams to admit up to 5,000 fans. The league is hoping to allow stadiums to be filled to half of their capacity starting Aug. 1.

"Tokyo had a lot again (on Friday)," said Chiba resident Shin Fukuzumi. "So hopefully this won’t be our last time to be at a game.”

The announced attendance at Zozo Marine was 4,891 Friday night.

"We've been waiting on this, to be able to play in front of the fans," said Lions designated hitter Takumi Kuriyama, who homered and drove in three runs in his team's 7-6 win. "We were very nervous but it feels good to come up with the result we wanted."

There were a number of measures in place for the game between the Marines and Lions in Chiba.

When the gates opened at 4 p.m., fans had their temperatures checked before entering and were asked to use hand sanitizer. They were required to wear masks and also sat spaced apart in the stands, even if they came together. Entrance to the fan shops were limited, based on the number of people already inside, and some concession stands had tape on the ground to encourage distancing.

"To be honest, this week with rising cases I was a bit worried, said Steve Novosel, an American who has been a Lotte fan club member for over a decade. "But the countermeasures they put in place seem pretty good to me.

"Also, they're doing a lot of inspections and mandatory masks and no (high-fives) and no touching people at all and no cheering. It changes the mood of the stadium, but I think it's going to make it a lot safer."

The usual NPB atmosphere was definitely missing in Chiba.

To help prevent the spread of the virus, fans have been asked to refrain from their usual style of cheering, which includes singing and shouting. They also won’t be able to release balloons during the seventh inning and after games, as is the custom in some parks.

"I'm nervous to be here, because it won't be like normal," Fukuzumi said. “But we’re excited although we are not going to cheer loudly. You can't even whistle with your fingers, which we normally did in the outfield. You can clap though. But we appreciate being able to attend the game on the first day fans can finally get in."

The crowd in Chiba mostly stuck to the guidelines, limiting themselves to clapping and the occasional oohs and aahs.

When the Lions' Hotaka Yamakawa homered in the first inning, Seibu fans imitated his famous dosukoi pose — a celebration he borrowed from the sumo world — but did so by lifting their hands without screaming.

After Lotte's Seiya Inoue homered in the bottom of the third, some Marines fans did air high-fives in the stands.

"We appreciate the support from the fans," Kuriyama said.

The fans were just glad to be back.

“They always say 'Marines is my life' here, it's like the old slogan,” Novosel said. “All me and my Marines fan friends were dying not being able to watch the games. TV helps a bit, but actually coming into the stadium is different. It's like seeing your family.”

At Zozo Marine, at least, the location helped assuage some concerns.

Okinawa native Keigo Shimabukuro, who lives in Chiba, said he was "a little bit" worried about the virus, but added, "it's an outside stadium."

The virus concerns also didn't deter longtime fan Craig Roberts, who said he had some reservations but had planned to go to Saturday's game before showing up Friday.

"I take a rush hour train everyday," he said. "We're going to be outside in a windy environment, this is probably less risky than what I do usually everyday. Of course, it's still maybe not the safest thing in the world to do."

The Marines have signage up around the stadium informing fans of the guidelines and they were displayed on the scoreboard at times as well.

Even with the restrictions, many fans were just thankful to have baseball again.

"We’ve stayed home for a long time and didn’t have anything to do for fun," Yasuhiro Kojima said. "I used to play baseball myself, but even Koshien was called off and I was so disappointed.

"But the season is finally back.”

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