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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Japan's baseball league a cautionary tale for MLB's possible return

Members of Yomiuri Giants huddle ahead of a

Members of Yomiuri Giants huddle ahead of a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) pre-season baseball game against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, closed to spectators due to the coronavirus, at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Credit: Bloomberg/Toru Hanai

Those holding out hope for baseball in the States this season used to have a beacon of optimism still flickering in Japan, where spring training had resumed and Opening Day was pushed back more than a month to April 24.

Instead, Nippon Professional Baseball -- or NPB, their version of MLB -- is turning out to be a cautionary tale, exposing the pitfalls of re-starting any sport before the coronavirus threat has been silenced, or even adequately contained.

The anxious NPB owners, fearful of any prolonged shutdown, first momentarily halted spring training before resuming exhibition games played in empty stadiums. But that didn’t shut out the virus, as three Hanshin Tigers tested positive for COVID-19 last week, a jarring development that now has some league officials reconsidering the April 24 opener, according to Sports Nippon.

The life-and-death risk involved in these games really hits home once players see their colleagues fall victim to the virus, as well as the greater threat to the public health overall, even without allowing spectators into the ballparks. Before the Hanshin players contracted COVID-19, the NPB thought they had exercised the proper precautions, quarantining their teams and even taking the temperatures of players, staff and whatever media was permitted in the building, as the Japan News reported.

And still the virus leaked through, infecting the very faces of the sport and casting serious doubt on the NPB’s ability to protect their players. Once that happens, it should be Game Over, which is why MLB not only has to follow the CDC’s recommendations to the letter, but arguably has to go even further to prevent such a calamity.

In the wake of Hanshin’s positive tests, I asked MLB players union chief Tony Clark how difficult it would be to avoid such a situation with MLB players when -- or if -- the season does re-start. And was it even possible to ensure their safety knowing the aggressively-contagious nature of the coronavirus?

“The work that is being done to learn more and more about the virus itself is invariably helping,” Clark said. “Not just athletes, but as citizens, we appreciate what we should and shouldn't be doing or could and couldn't be doing. That information is new daily.

“The information in our communications with the CDC and infectious disease specialists and other experts that we've been in contact with are going to help us to understand and appreciate the best processes and protocols to put in place as we move forward. Particularly as we look to get guys back to playing on the field and fans in the ballpark.”

That’s really all Clark, or anyone, can say at this stage. As we keep hearing, this is a very fluid situation. Whether it’s Gov. Cuomo or President Trump, we are presented with new developments and new statistics each morning and night about COVID-19. Projections are altered, timelines change. The goalposts feel like they’re always moving. If you asked National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci privately what he thought about an MLB season being played this year, I get the sense we wouldn’t like his answer.

It was only weeks ago that NPB officials thought they had the situation figured out. Remove the fans -- the biggest unknown variable -- and take an extra month to let the Japanese government (hopefully) control the COVID-19 threat. When the IOC decided to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until July 2021, the NPB -- which planned to be on hiatus for a month during that time -- believed they were granted a window to make up a chunk of the schedule that was lost at the start of their 143-game regular season.

That opportunity, however, may have only been an illusion. While we understand the NPB’s determination to deliver for baseball-loving Japan, that show-must-go-on attitude doesn’t fly as long as the coronavirus hasn’t loosened its grip on society. The Hanshin episode was a reminder of that sad reality, and MLB doesn’t sound like it’s bold enough to make the same mistake.

Commissioner Rob Manfred offered his best-case scenario last week when he told ESPN that he was hoping for a mid-May start-up for another spring training, which would coincide with the end of the CDC’s original eight-week ban on gatherings of 50 or more people. Of course, these dates remain in flux. It only took a matter of days for Manfred to go from a two-week delay for Opening Day to an indefinite suspension and President Trump on Monday extended the nation’s shutdown from his original target of Easter to April 30.

 MLB’s only logical hope is for significant breakthroughs in both testing and treatment because a vaccine -- the lone salvation for sports leagues -- isn’t expected until 2021. Short of that, all anyone has to do is look at NPB’s strategy as a potential recipe for disaster. And one MLB isn’t rushing to follow.        

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