Nippon Professional Baseball is looking to get back to a normal 143-game season — after which both the Central and Pacific Leagues will stage their Climax Series — this year even with COVID-19 continuing to hang over society.
NPB confirmed its plans during a meeting with all 12 teams on Wednesday. The league also reached agreements with the clubs on other matters — mostly related to protocols and countermeasures for the virus that were raised during a meeting of the board of directors and team representatives on Tuesday.
The teams will begin their spring camps as scheduled on Feb. 1 in Miyazaki and Okinawa prefectures, though they’ll do so with no fans present.
Miyazaki has declared its own state of emergency and had asked teams to hold their camps without fans. Okinawa followed suit on Tuesday, banning the public from camp sites during its own state of emergency and noting that several other prefectures are currently under a state of emergency declared by the central government.
The Yomiuri Giants announced 19 of their players, a group consisting mainly of veterans such as Hayato Sakamoto and Tomoyuki Sugano, would skip the team’s Miyazaki camp and fly to Okinawa on Feb. 5. Those players will begin their workouts at Tokyo Dome instead. The club said it reached the decision based on the players having a shorter offseason and because it also reduces the risk of them contracting the virus.
Following an online meeting of NPB managers, Seibu Lions skipper Hatsuhiko Tsuji, who served as chair, met with reporters during an online news conference and said the teams were disappointed to get started with no fans around to watch.
“It was a weird feeling to kick off the season without any fans last year and we didn’t expect that would still be the case at the training camps,” Tsuji said. “For the player, the camps are even more physically demanding than things are during the season, and the cheering of the fans gives them energy. So it’s a shame.
“But looking at the bigger picture, our main goal is for all 12 teams to start the season on March 26, and we need to focus on what we can do to make that happen.”
NPB will require players and staff members to undergo regular PCR tests during camp and has also asked reporters to do the same in addition to also testing negative before arriving at the camp sites.
The league and the clubs have also agreed to maintain the special rules put in place in 2020 because of the pandemic with some minor tweaks.
As was the case last year, clubs will be able to register 31 players on the top team, with 26 on the bench for each game — those numbers are 29 and 25 under normal circumstances.
Each team will also be able to register up to five foreign players, one more than usual, with four eligible to play in each game and up to three on the field simultaneously.
Last season, if a team registered five foreign players it had to either be four pitchers and one position player or vice versa. While teams will still not be permitted to register either five pitchers or five position players at once, they will be able to, for instance, register three pitchers and two fielders.
The league will return to a normal 143-game schedule after being limited to 120 in 2020 after a three-month delay in starting the season. Regular-season games, however, will still end after a maximum of 10 innings, as was the case last year.
Both leagues will stage a full two-round postseason Climax Series to determine the Japan Series participants. The PL only held the final stage in 2020 while the CL canceled its Climax Series altogether.
“Hopefully, our fans will be able to come to the stadiums so we have to be patient now,” Tsuji said. “And they can enjoy the action when our season starts.”
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