Professional baseball games were held behind closed doors across Japan on Saturday amid mounting concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus.
While baseball is one of the most popular sports in the country and is associated with fans cheering and singing in unison at packed venues, four afternoon games were held without spectators.
“It’s for the safety of our fans. It can’t be helped,” said Kimiyasu Kudo, the manager of the SoftBank Hawks in the Pacific League.
Nippon Professional Baseball decided Wednesday to hold all 72 of its remaining preseason games behind closed doors. The 12 pro clubs have just finished spring training camp, and were expecting to draw good crowds ahead of their March 20 season-openers.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday asked organizers of big sports and cultural events scheduled for the next two weeks to consider canceling or postponing them.
Many sports events in Japan have been postponed or cancelled in Japan due to the coronavirus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China.
It is the first time NPB has barred fans from attending preseason or regular season games, although after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, practice games before that season’s delayed start were closed to the public.
“Players can do well partly because they are playing in front of fans. By contrast, (playing at an empty venue) will allow them to appreciate fans even more,” said Akihiro Yano, the skipper of the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers. “I think this will be a good experience for them.”
The Tigers defeated the reigning three-time defending Japan Series champions Hawks 5-4 at PayPay Dome in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan.
Since Japanese pro ball is scheduled to have a break during this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, officials are hoping the virus will not influence the competition calendar.
“We decided to hold the games without a crowd because we wanted to create an environment for us to open the season as scheduled,” said Harumi Hoshi, a high-ranked official of the Yomiuri Giants.
Meanwhile, horses raced in front of empty stands at three racecourses. At Nakayama Racecourse in Funabashi, near Tokyo, a few fans came to the venue in the morning without knowing they could not enter, the Japan Racing Association said.
“It felt awkward when we passed by (an empty) paddock, but it felt like any other race, except for not hearing fans cheer in the final dash,” said jockey Genki Maruyama, who won the first race at Nakayama.