Baseball Leagues In Korea, Japan Face Ongoing Coronavirus Challenges

5:08pm: Although NPB had been pushing for an April 24 start, Sports Nippon in Japan reports that league officials are now questioning whether that’s a viable target date (English-language link via Tokyo-based baseball journalist Jim Allen). Half of the league’s team presidents met this morning and acknowledged that a later date is now likely necessary, although a specific timeframe has yet to be agreed upon. Allen notes that league officials have run simulations of scenarios that include May 8 and May 15 starts to the season.

Meanwhile, in a full column for Yonhap, Yoo reports that the KBO is contemplating weekly Monday doubleheaders as the league mulls season lengths of 124 games, 117 games and 108 games (all declines from the traditional 144-game length). Major League Baseball, of course, has discussed similar use of frequent doubleheaders in an effort to maximize the number of games possible in a shortened season of its own.

9:15am: With COVID-19 raging in the United States, it’s hard not to glance longingly across the Pacific. In Korea and Japan, authorities have seemingly gained control over the spread of the virus — so much so that their highly respected baseball leagues are working toward a resumption of play.

That’s not to say the effort is without challenges. Ramping up economic activity while holding back the tide of disease requires flexibility that’s flatly inconsistent with baseball’s typically regimented structure. Both the Korea Baseball Organization and Nippon Professional Baseball have had to adapt their plans on an ad hoc basis.

The KBO had been tracking toward an Opening Day about three weeks from today. That’s no longer on the table, as Yonhap’s Jeeho Yoo reports (Twitter links). Now, with teams still prevented from traveling away from their own facilities, April 21st is scheduled for the start of the preseason.

There’s still hope that the KBO campaign will get underway by early May, if not a bit sooner. But the league has seemingly scrapped plans to get in all 144 games. Per Yoo, teams expect to play as few as 108 contests.

For the time being, the Japanese schedule has not been altered further since initially being pushed back from March 20 to April 24. But the NPB has come across its own problems. Star Hanshin Tigers right-hander Shintaro Fujinami and two teammates have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Associated Press (Kyodo News was first to report on Fujinami). They are the first three professional baseball players in Japan to test positive for the illness.

There have been spectator-less exhibition contests taking place in Japan, but the Tigers canceled their farm team practice game Thursday in response to this news. They’ve also suspended all practice through April 1 and ordered their players and staff to self-quarantine. It’s obviously possible to imagine that this worrisome development could ultimately contribute to another delay for the league. More broadly, the news on the Hanshin players represents another grim reminder of what the world is up against and how challenging it is to carry on with pro sports or any other aspects of normal life at this time.

In other less-than-promising news out of Asia, China has halted attempts to resume professional sports, Brian Windhorst of reports on Twitter. It seems the overarching concern lies in the potential for transmission between asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus. That decision and reasoning further underscore the remaining uncertainty in dealing with this disease. Even when progress is finally made in getting sports and other business activities back online, it’s all but certain that new hurdles will arise.

Just what this all means for Major League Baseball in 2020 is anyone’s guess, though it’s obviously not promising. But it’s important to bear in mind that the situation is evolving at an exceptionally rapid pace that largely defies prediction. Remarkably, it was less than three weeks ago that MLB halted Spring Training.

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