Japan Pro Baseball Teams Start Spring Camps without Fans

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara addresses his players on the first day of spring training on Monday in Miyazaki.

The spring training camps of Japan’s pro baseball teams, concentrated in Miyazaki and Okinawa prefectures, got off to quiet starts on Monday, with strict pandemic protocols in place that included the banning of fans from observing the action.

Both prefectures have declared a state of emergency on their own, and players and staff will be undergoing periodic testing for the coronavirus. Countermeasures to prevent infections have been put in place at the stadiums and the teams’ lodgings.

Prepping for the scheduled opening of the season on March 26, the Yomiuri Giants split up their first-team and farm players between their camp in Miyazaki city, Tokyo Dome and their training facility in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Prior to the start of practice in Miyazaki, manager Tatsunori Hara and emerging slugger Kazuma Okamoto led the team in collective prayers at a shrine close to the team lodgings as the Giants aim for a third straight Central League pennant and first Japan Series title in nine years.

While the bulk of the first team was at Hinata Sun Marine Stadium in Miyazaki, team captain Hayato Sakamoto and ace pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano were among a number of players working out at Tokyo Dome.

That left Okamoto to fill the role of team leader in Miyazaki. The infielder, who will turn 25 in June, led the CL last season in both home runs (31) and RBIs (97), and has more than grown out of the nickname of “Big Baby” that Hara once affixed to him.

Hara, sensing that Okamoto is ready to step up as leader, appointed him as captain for the Miyazaki camp. “I think this is the right time,” Hara said.

Sakamoto himself was 26 when he inherited the team captainship from Shinnosuke Abe, currently the farm team manager. While he didn’t produce that year, the following season Sakamoto led the CL in batting and on-base percentage, using the pressure as a springboard to stardom.

Okamoto, who is always aiming to reach higher heights, appears to be on the same path. When told by Sakamoto that he will be recommended to be the next captain, Okamoto said that he was “in the position” in which he must be aware of taking on such a role.

■Hawks look to bulk up

For manager Kimiyasu Kudo of the defending champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, the theme of this year’s camp in Miyazaki is that a strong body will be the key in a bid to win a fifth straight Japan Series.

“Strength equals concentration. We need to build power that can fight over a 143-game season,” Kudo said.

The team started the camp in the indoor facility with testing of strength and range of motion.

Meanwhile, the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles, who have welcomed back former ace Masahiro Tanaka after seven years in the major leagues, started their first-team camp in the town of Kin on the main island of Okinawa, instead of as planned on the outlying island of Kumejima.

The team made the change in consideration of not putting extra burden on the medical system of Kumejima.

“It’s a bit lonely [without the fans], but on the plus side, it will allow us to concentrate fully on baseball,” said pitcher Takahiro Norimoto.

The Eagles are one of several teams with a new manager this year, with former major leaguer Kazuhisa Ishii taking the helm of the Sendai-based club.