Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) will start its season on June 19, as Japan continues to reduce restrictions put in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
A government advisory panel approved a plan to end a state of emergency in the five prefectures that were still part of that order, clearing the way for NPB to celebrate its Opening Day in less than a month.
NPB Planning on Shortened Season
NPB had scheduled Opening Day to take place on March 20, but the league postponed its regular season due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Many aspects of the restart have yet to be determined, but NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito said the league’s goal will be to complete a shortened 120-game season, rather than its normal 143-game schedule. He also said that scheduling will be completed with an eye toward lowering the risk of infection.
“We’ve caused a lot of problems and worry for the players, staff and, first and foremost, the fans by constantly changing the schedule,” Saito said in an online press conference on Monday. “But we hope to provide encouragement to the public, which has had to endure the feeling of being locked down during the quarantine period and also give guidance to other sports.”
NBP will join the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan and the KBO League in Korea in starting their 2020 baseball seasons. The CPBL began welcoming fans back to its games in limited numbers earlier this month.
Japanese teams will play in empty stadiums to start the 2020 season. However, NPB officials will monitor the ongoing COVID-19 situation in the hopes of allowing fans to attend games later in the season.
Leagues Considering Changes to Postseason, No Extra Innings
The Japan Times reported that NPB may take other measures to limit the stress on players during the shortened season. These could include shortening the postseason, limiting games to just nine innings, or placing time limits on games. However, Saito only confirmed that Japan’s Central League and Pacific League are discussing various possibilities.
“While it’s a joy for us to open our season, we’ll need to proceed with the utmost caution to protect our players, staff and their families,” Saito said during his virtual news conference. “We have to prepare with that in mind. That’s more important than anything else.”
American sportsbooks and baseball fans would welcome the NPB. Outside of Major League Baseball, the NPB offers the highest quality of baseball in the world, and many players have successfully made the jump from the Japanese league to MLB play. The time difference would stand as the largest barrier to entry for fans and bettors: much like the KBO League, NPB games largely take place in the very early morning in US time zones.
American baseball fans may not have to wait too long before watching games this summer. MLB and its players are currently in negotiations over plans to start their 2020 season, which could begin around July 4 weekend. Financial and health concerns have emerged as contentious issues as the two sides attempt to reach an agreement.