Baseball: Ignoring virus spike, Japanese fans flood back to stadiums

Baseball: Ignoring virus spike, Japanese fans flood back to stadiums

July 10, 2020

MAKUHARI (AFP) – Japanese baseball fans shrugged off a record spike in coronavirus cases in Tokyo as they flocked back to stadiums for the first time in months on Friday (July 10).

Baseball and football, the country’s two most popular sports, are the first to reopen stadiums to spectators, making them a test case as Japan seeks to get back to normal and reignite its economy.

Up to 5,000 fans are allowed in stadiums under strict rules, including compulsory temperature tests and face masks, and restrictions on cheering and high-fiving.

Tokyo Olympics officials have said they will be closely watching the gradual return of fans to sports stadiums, as they work on reorganising the 2020 Games for next year.

Hours before the first pitch, die-hard baseball fans began gathering at the 30,000-seat Zozo Marine Stadium in Makuhari city, just east of Tokyo, where the home franchise Lotte Marines were going to take on the Seibu Lions.

It was among six baseball games scheduled across Japan, while one second-division football match was also planned before fans return to top-level J-League matches from Saturday.

“The atmosphere will be absolutely different. You watch the game at the ball park, the excitement you feel and the feeling of enthusiasm is totally different,” said Lions fan Tetsuya Osako, 36, who usually attends dozens of games a year.

“I’ve waited for this day for so long.”

The atmosphere certainly promises to be different, a far cry from the raucous singing, drumming, trumpeting and passionate cheering that normally accompanies players to the baseball diamond.

Fans are banned from singing, yelling, waving flags and towels, or engaging in any close physical contact, like high fives or putting arms around someone’s shoulders.

“For people who believe the whole baseball experience begins with a gulp of cold beer and cheering the loudest for their favourite players, tough days might lie ahead,” said Satoshi Furuhashi, 59, a baseball fan who came to the Lotte game.

“I wanted to be here on this banner day,” he said.

The government plans to further loosen restrictions from Aug 1, when stadiums will be allowed to fill half of their seats.

But the stadium reopening has come as the greater Tokyo region sees a worrying coronavirus spike, with the Japanese capital reporting a record 243 new cases on Friday.

However, the government has largely downplayed fears of a second wave, saying the new cases are mainly from younger patients, with clusters centred around Tokyo’s night-time entertainment district.

Baseball fans said they were confident about anti-infection measures in place.

“I have seen how they have been preparing strict coronavirus meaures. So I am very comfortable,” said Noriyuki Fukai, 47, who came to the ball park with his six-year-old son Ryunosuke.

“Usually I come here to cheer for my team, but today I think I am interested in hearing the sound of batters slamming the ball or pitches popping into catchers’ mitts.”

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