Ride Wave of WBC Enthusiasm into Domestic Season

The professional baseball season in Japan has arrived, hot on the heels of the 2023 World Baseball Classic (WBC), which pit teams from around the globe against each other and generated unprecedented levels of excitement and enthusiasm. It is hoped that everyone involved with Nippon Professional Baseball will make efforts to ride the wave of enthusiasm whipped up by the WBC as the regular season kicks off.

On March 30, a day before other teams’ season openers, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters were to play the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles at Es Con Field Hokkaido, the Fighters’ new grass-turf stadium, which features a retractable roof. The remaining 10 teams in the Central and Pacific leagues will all play their opening games on March 31.

Many people must have rediscovered the appeal of baseball through the spirited efforts of Japan’s WBC-winning national team, Samurai Japan. Team members who played as one will revive rivalries and set their focus on the domestic championship. The fun never stops.

This season, fans will be keeping an eye on the competition between sluggers Munetaka Murakami of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Kazuma Okamoto of the Yomiuri Giants, both of whom hit home runs in the WBC finals. The pitching of Roki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines and Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the ORIX Buffaloes will also be worth watching.

However, the players who competed in the WBC must be physically and mentally exhausted. Pitchers who threw balls different from those used in Japan will also need to readjust. The season is long. Players should not be rushed to adjust their form at the start of the domestic season to avoid the risk of injuries.

In the past two seasons, the Swallows and the Buffaloes competed for the Japan Series championship. This season, it will be interesting to see if two teams that missed out on the league championships last year will be able to rally back: the Giants, who are aiming for their first Central League championship in three years, and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, which have added powerful players to their pitching and batting lineup. It will also be interesting to see how the new managers perform at the Hanshin Tigers, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, the Saitama Seibu Lions and the Marines.

The result of a new draft system, which was implemented for the first time for active players who had not had sufficient opportunities to play in the first team, will be put to the test. Some of the 12 drafted players have made their presence felt in preseason games. It is hoped that they will breathe new life into their teams.

Professional baseball has been at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic for the past three years. Although spectator caps were removed last season, fans were not allowed to vocally cheer for their favorite teams. For that reason, some fans may have felt they lacked a sense of unity in the spectators’ stands.

This year, for the first time in four years, fans will be able to cheer out loud, which will surely fill them with joy.

Spectators will also be allowed to use their discretion regarding mask-wearing at stadiums, in principle. It is hoped that fans will enjoy themselves at live games, while not forgetting the importance of the basics of etiquette regarding washing hands and coughing. Each team must actively hold events that attract fans.

In U.S. Major League Baseball, two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels is scheduled to appear as a pitcher and hitter in the season opener on March 31, Japan time. Attention will also be focused on the performances of Japanese players on the other side of the ocean.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 30, 2023)