Professional Baseball Season Starts: Hopes Are High for Energetic Plays with Tradition in Mind

The Central and Pacific leagues are both set to begin the 2024 season on Friday. This year marks the 90th anniversary of professional baseball in Japan. It is hoped that players and others will build a new era with their exciting performances, bearing in mind the long history of the sport in the nation.

The history of Japanese professional baseball dates back to 1934. Babe Ruth and other players of a U.S. Major League Baseball all-star team visited Japan to play in various locations. The Dai-nippon Tokyo Yakyu Kurabu (Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club), the present-day Yomiuri Giants, was later founded, mainly comprising players from the Japan team that played the U.S. team at that time.

The following year, the Osaka Yakyu Kurabu (Osaka Baseball Club), now the Hanshin Tigers, was also formed. Since then, Japanese professional baseball has grown significantly, overcoming such difficult times as a war.

This season, a game between traditional rivals — the Giants and the Tigers — will be held as an opener of the Central League. It will be interesting to see how the Giants, who are celebrating their 90th anniversary, will play against the Tigers, who won the league title last season with a wide margin over the second-place team.

The key for the Giants this season is likely to be the leadership of new manager Shinnosuke Abe, who is knowledgeable about the team’s strengths after serving as the manager of the Giants’ farm team and a coach of their top team. Another point of interest is how far players such as Kazuma Okamoto, last season’s home run king, can extend their individual records.

In the Pacific League, the focus will be on whether any other teams can put pressure on the Orix Buffaloes, who ran away with the title last season. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, led by new manager Hiroki Kokubo, are considered to be a strong challenger, given the team has strengthened their offense with the addition of new players. These two teams will face off in their season opener.

Among the rookies, expectations are high for the Yokohama DeNA Baystars’ Ryuki Watarai and the Giants’ Shunsuke Sasaki, both of whom performed well in preseason exhibition games. The rise of young players will help revitalize the baseball world as a whole.

In the farm league, which has already started its season, the newly established Kufu Hayate Ventures Shizuoka and the Oisix Niigata Albirex Baseball Club, which previously played in an independent league, joined this season.

Many promising athletes are playing in the farm league. It is hoped that they will showcase their superb techniques and speedy play to local children and broaden the sport’s fan base.

The Premier 12, an international tournament, is scheduled to be held in autumn. Last spring, Japan’s national team, Samurai Japan, won the title of the World Baseball Classic, an intercountry and interregional tournament, exciting people across Japan. Once again, hopes are high for the Japan team to compete against foreign teams.

The number of spectators at official Central and Pacific league games in 2023 totaled 25.07 million, nearing the previous record high in 2019 of 26.54 million, which was the highest since actual visitor numbers started being released. These signs suggest that visitor numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels. It is hoped that Japanese professional baseball will offer exciting games and grab the hearts of more people.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 29, 2024)