Fukuoka – It’s possible there were multiple winners Wednesday night at PayPay Dome when Yoshiyuki Kamei’s popup landed in Ukyo Shuto’s glove to end the 2020 Japan Series.
The obvious winners were the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, evidenced by the players rushing onto the field as manager Kimiyasu Kudo exchanged elbow bumps with his coaches in the dugout.
The night’s other tentative victors were NPB and possibly the Olympic organizers.
When Shuto settled under the ball and made the catch it meant NPB had staged the Japan Series to completion, without having to enact its contingency plan for crowning a champion. It had also completed the series without any major issues befalling the Hawks or Yomiuri Giants.
What Tokyo 2020 organizers may have been more interested in is how many people were in the stands to see the Hawks parade around the field, wearing black masks that matched the black championship shirts they’d slipped into, with the championship banner.
“We really received support from the fans,” Kudo said. “We wouldn’t even have started the season without their support. We also received energy and support from the medical community, NPB and team officials. We’re pleased to share the championship with our fans.”
Whether or not staging the Olympics is a good idea — or even possible — organizers are doing their utmost to ensure the games happen next year. They’ve also been vocal about their preference to have fans in the stands.
In that respect, the recently completed Japan Series was perhaps the biggest test of Japan’s ability — and willingness — to host a major sporting event with fans since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted sports earlier in the year.
What helped set the Japan Series apart from events like the recent sumo basho, and the one-day international gymnastics event earlier this month, was that the Japan Series featured bigger crowds and travel between two cities.
Even with the government’s restrictions on crowd size in place, over 16,000 fans attended each of the first two games at Kyocera Dome in Osaka. For Game 3, the first in Fukuoka, attendance crept over 17,000. On Wednesday, with the Hawks in line to clinch, Game 4 attendance was 19,679.
In all, 69,798 attended the Japan Series — a record low due to the limits on crowd sizes.
While the Japan Series isn’t nearly the size and scale of a Summer Games, it gave organizers a chance to see how a multiday event held entirely indoors could play out on a smaller scale.
Since baseball is itself an Olympic sport, there are also lessons that could be applied to the Olympic tournament at Yokohama Stadium next year.
NPB put several measures in place for the Series, some of which began in the regular season, to help reduce the risks of spreading the novel coronavirus.
In addition to temperature checks and masks being required, fans going to games needed to write down contact information, their seat numbers and other details before heading inside. They were also asked to keep their ticket stubs for 14 days.
The Series also relied, in part, on the fans taking on some responsibility themselves by not screaming or shouting during games and limiting their movement around the venues. They were asked not leave their seats to chase after foul balls, which stadium staff would be collecting anyway.
The league also tried to stagger fans’ exits after the games to avoid areas becoming jam-packed with people trying to leave.
When International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach visited Japan earlier in the month, he expressed confidence there would be fans at the Olympics. Fans have been allowed at sporting events in Japan since the summer and the Japan Series gave organizers another example to point to as they forge ahead.
That is, of course, if everything went smoothly.
While NPB did what it could to help reduce the risks of COVID-19 transmission, there were still several thousand people sitting, talking and eating and drinking around each other for four games in two domed stadiums. The league preached social distance, but there was only so much that could be achieved during Game 4.
NPB put a number of measures in place, and fans seemed to cooperate.
If no infections or clusters that can be traced back to the Series are discovered in the next few weeks, then NPB can take a victory lap and Tokyo 2020 organizers will have more data to include in their own plans.
If the opposite happens, that could be at least one strike against organizers’ goal to bring fans to Tokyo for the games.
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