Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Robot Fans? How International Baseball is Coping with COVID-19

Forget about robot umpires: Taiwan's CPBL plans to introduce robo-fans when baseball resumes. While MLB eyes a May start, Japan had to shut down after players tested positive for coronavirus, crippling NPB just weeks after the league resumed Spring Training in empty stadiums.

Here's how baseball leagues throughout the world are handling their season postponements, with an example as to the difficulty of playing baseball in a viral world, even with no fans in attendance:

United States (Late May or June): MLB has not officially committed to a revised date for Opening Day, though the most recent reports indicate an eye toward starting a season without fans in late May or early June. One of the potential issues we identified, however, was the question of a player testing positive.
Related PostMLB Considering Electronic Strike Zone for Social Distance Safety During 2020 Season (4/7/20).

Although MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred would reportedly want to continue playing the season while isolating the positive player(s)—hence the need for expanded rosters—one look at MLB's Japanese counterpart shows why this might be more difficult than it looks.

Japan (late May): Nippon Professional Baseball Commissioner Atsushi Saito announced an extended delay to the NPB season after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a national state of emergency. NPBL initially hoped to begin playing on April 24, but Abe's national declaration has pushed NPB's start date back by at least one month.

Three Hanshin Tigers players, pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, outfielder Hayata Ito, and catcher Kenya Nagasaka, additionally tested positive for the virus; the trio reportedly had dinner together on March 14 and didn't exhibit symptoms until late March.

Japan had resumed Spring Training with no fans in attendance in a sign of tentative optimism, but the recent viral flare up in Japan (cases and deaths have increased), including the infection of multiple NPB players after the restart of play, and state of emergency made the no-fans plan a no-go.

The development could prove disastrous for USA's MLB by portraying the perils of trying to resume too soon, even in an otherwise controlled environment.

South Korea (early May): The Korean Baseball Organization began scrimmaging recently—intrasquad affairs thus far and hopes to start its season in "early May." South Korea has become the world model for tackling COVID-19 through its combination of widespread testing, isolation, and contact monitoring.

Because South Korea was so successful in testing early-on in the contagion, the country has been able to successfully manage the virus' spread, which has given KBO Secretary General Ryu Dae-hwan the confidence to announce preseason games beginning on April 21 with a goal of Opening Day in early May.

Unlike MLB, Korea isn't seeking to squeeze in a full schedule through doubleheaders in one metropolitan area; instead, KBO is looking at playing a full 144-game schedule, with all games pushed approximately one month back with playoffs lasting through November.

Taiwan (April 11): The Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), following local CDC guidelines, decided to begin the 2020 season in empty stadiums. One team, the Rakuten Monkeys, announced it would place "robot mannequins in the stands dressed up as fans." CPBL President John Wu has instructed fans to stay home and avoid gathering outside the stadiums.

The CPBL has only five teams, meaning the Taiwanese league has the smallest group to manage over a 48-game schedule.

Europe (Cancelled): The European Baseball Association (CEB) cancelled international European baseball cups, which would have taken place in Ostrava, Czech Republic, in June.

United Kingdom (May): Already dealing with CEB and London Series cancellations, the British Baseball Federation (BBF) postponed all activities until May.

Italy (June 13): The Federazione Italiana Baseball/Softball (FIBS) announced plans to begin playing in mid-June, and has actually built-in to its schedule the ability to stop playing all-together for several weeks in August in the event of a flare-up.

Southern Hemisphere (including Australia): Although the Australian Baseball League (ABL) is in its winter offseason, Oceana does ordinarily play some baseball over the April-August period. Baseball Queensland, for instance, has postponed all leagues until at least May 19, 2020, with the goal of eventual re-evaluation that might push that date farther back.

The Greater Brisbane League, specifically, prematurely concluded its season, awarding Division Premierships to teams presently at the top of their divisions at the time of the season's termination.

Mexican League (May 11 or later): LMB was one of the final leagues to stop playing Spring ball, and other than an initial mid-March announcement of expecting to postpone the season until May 11, LMB has been silent on the issue. One team, Los Leones de Yucatan, announced that doctors and nurses will get free tickets to Lions games for the entire 2020 season.


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