The Japanese baseball season will not begin in May, as Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) has determined that the 2020 season will be shortened and start no earlier than June.
NPB had planned on starting regular-season play on March 20, but officials have pushed that date back multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Japanese Season Cut Down to 125 Games
Japanese baseball enjoyed some added flexibility heading into this season, particularly after the International Olympic Committee postponed the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. NPB teams already expected to take a three-week break for the Olympics during the summer. Once the Olympics moved, that break was no longer necessary, allowing officials to use those dates to reorganize the NPB season.
At this point, however, even those moves won’t save a full 143 game NPB season. Representatives of the 12 NPB teams agreed on Friday to eliminate interleague play between the Central and Pacific leagues this season. That cuts 18 games off the schedule, allowing for a 125-game season instead.
“It was clear that we were going to have to reduce the number of games,” said Orix Buffaloes deputy general manager Shosaku Yokota. “We decided that in such a case, it was best to protect league games.”
The Chinese Professional Baseball League, a four-team league in Taiwan, began play earlier this month without fans in the stands. The Korea Baseball Organization – which features a much higher level of play and which might even be attractive to American broadcasters – is looking at starting its season as early as May 1.
Baseball Leagues Grapple with Coronavirus Pandemic
These dates provide a baseline for expectations for American sports leagues, particularly Major League Baseball. MLB officials have floated various plans for beginning the 2020 season, including a proposal that would send all 30 teams to Arizona to play the year in relative seclusion without fans. That plan would see the season begin as early as June.
However, that seems unrealistic given the experiences of the Asian baseball leagues. While Taiwan, Korea, and Japan have all experienced smaller coronavirus outbreaks, the situation in the United States most resembles that of Japan, where cases have recently surged, particularly in Tokyo. Doctors in Japan have warned that some hospitals in the country could be overwhelmed by an influx of new cases. Japanese officials have engaged in the same debates seen in the USA over balancing medical and economic concerns.
Even if conditions allow for the MLB season to start up in Arizona, many players have expressed concerns over that plan.
“We all want to play baseball. I get that,” Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw told the Los Angeles Times. “But there is something about being in the big leagues, and you can’t compromise that. Playing in spring training stadiums and quarantining for months without your family and certain things like that, I don’t think that’s doable if you’re talking about doing it for four to five months.”