Foreign players facing another lonely NPB season

The signs of baseball spring are popping up all across Japan this month. Veteran players are emerging from winter vacations and ramping up their individual workouts for the upcoming season. Rookies are stirring too, with some with their teams taking part in voluntary individual training that is actually neither voluntary nor individual. The flow of foreign players returning to Japan has also gotten underway.

While NPB is barreling toward the start of spring camp next month, the league is also bracing for yet another season with the threat of COVID-19 hanging perilously overhead.

Japanese baseball revealed itself to be surprisingly adept at walking the coronavirus tightrope last season. NPB, despite a few hiccups and a prolonged break for the Tokyo Olympics, managed to complete the entire 2021 regular season and then stage a full postseason that ended with a thrilling Japan Series between the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Orix Buffaloes.

While the league is no doubt preparing various measures for 2022, its teams will also hopefully remember the plight of foreign players facing the prospect of at least starting the year without knowing if their families will be able to join them at some point.

The so-called new normal has impacted every player in some way, but NPB’s foreign stars are dealing with the added pressures without the extra support they’re used to having.

For many players, having their loved ones present for part — if not all — of the season is a vital piece of the puzzle. That was laid bare in 2021, as Japan’s border restrictions meant players’ families were not allowed to join them during the season as many normally would.

Former Orix Buffaloes pitcher Brandon Dickson declined to even come to Japan in 2021, while slugger Justin Smoak left the Yomiuri Giants in the middle of the year to return home. Pitcher Colin Rea, who will be back with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks this year, and Seibu Lions infielder Ernesto Mejia also left early for family reasons.

Whether purposeful or not, the Lions threw a spotlight on the issue on Father’s Day last season, surprising their foreign players with video messages from their families playing on the scoreboard before the game. The move left some of the players on the field in tears.

That same video also featured many of the Lions’ Japanese players showing understanding and promising to support their teammates.

As NPB prepares for the 2022 season, teams should pay just as much attention to this issue as they have to making sure the games go on amid the pandemic.

This isn’t NPB’s fault, of course, as Japan’s border restrictions are causing the issue. The Giants tried, in vain, to resolve Smoak’s situation last year and the government will have the final say this time as well.

“I think the entry of new players and players’ families is still a tough line,” NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito was quoted as saying by Chunichi Sports last week. I think we’ll keep negotiating from here.”

In 2021, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles both showed how important mental wellbeing is for athletes — who are real people, and not robots — and it should be incumbent upon NPB and its teams to provide as comfortable an environment as possible for the players.

The clubs know what the issues are now and were able to see how it impacted their players first-hand last season and hopefully will do what they can to ease the burden.

Many of the first-time international players, and some of the vets too, may be forced to arrive to camp late due to Japan’s border laws. So they will already be under pressure as they adjust to a new country and teammates while already playing catch up Day 1.

Then when the season starts, they’ll be in Japan unaware of when they’re families can make the trip and with their partners left to handle things at home.

The Lions weren’t blind to the issue last season and the club’s foreign players seemed to appreciate the gesture. This year, the rest of NPB should make sure to follow suit and do what they can to ease the burden on players who will again be far from home as they chase success on the diamond.

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Source : Baseball – The Japan Times

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