July 6, 2022

Japan travel ban puts U.S. baseball players in limbo

As friends and former teammates train at spring major league training camps in Florida and Arizona, Colin Rea weaves his way through the snow in eastern Iowa doing his best to prepare for the season. in an environment that does not lend itself to play.

After pitching nine games for the Chicago Cubs last season, Rea signed with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks from Japan over the winter. He expected him to train in the heat of their southern Japanese camp when it opened on February 1.

Instead, Rea – like more than a dozen other players who have joined Japanese clubs out of season – is in limbo. Japan closed its borders to non-citizens and newcomers on January 4 in an increased effort to control the spread of the coronavirus. Initially in effect until February 7, the current entry ban now extends to March 7, but is continuously revised.

While waiting for the border to reopen, Rea prepares as best he can and tries to keep his sense of humor.

“I think high school was the last time I trained with snow on the ground this late in the offseason,” Rea said in a recent phone interview. “I have access to a weight room and indoor lift pen, so nothing outside right now, but it’s supposed to warm up to 30 degrees, so who knows? “

Rea is in regular contact with the Hawks, receiving travel status updates and sharing videos of his training sessions so the team can track their progress.

Despite the unusual circumstances, he has a strange familiarity.

“It’s kind of the same feeling as last spring and summer during quarantine and shutdown,” he said of Major League Baseball’s four-month suspension. “It was a week-to-week thing where we had to stay in shape and throw reliever pens and throw BP live and do what we can for practice. So to some extent I feel like I know what I need to do to stay fit on my own and be ready.

Eric Thames is in the same situation. The first baseman and outfielder, who played for the Washington Nationals in 2020 after three strong seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, signed with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan over the winter. Instead of training with them in Okinawa, however, he’s stuck at his home in Las Vegas concocting a workout routine.

“There were about 15 guys working here, but they’re all gone to their camps now,” Thames said in a telephone interview. “It’s just for me and another guy who’s playing in the Mexican league this year. We are pitching BP to each other and doing what we can. “

In a bygone era of Japanese baseball, overseas players frequently went to spring training after their Japanese teammates, believing they didn’t need a longer training period. Thames, however, expected an on-time arrival, which has become standard practice.

“People don’t understand,” he said. “You need all the time in spring training to get ready for a season. It is important to cut down on your time, prepare your arms, prepare your feet, prepare your back. On top of that, now is the time to get to know your teammates and build that camaraderie. We don’t even know our teammates yet.

Thames and Rea are among 20 players from outside Japan, a group that includes other major league veterans like Domingo Santana, Adeiny Hechavarria and Justin Smoak, who signed their first contracts with professional baseball teams Nippon and are now – temporarily – stranded outside the country. There are 50 other overseas-based players returning to Japan. Many of them were at training camp on time, provided they got a re-entry permit on their way home last fall.

For the new signatories, however, the travel ban is a problem on several levels. Not only is entry into the country prohibited, but the issuance of new visas has been suspended since December 28. This means that even after travel restrictions are eased, Thames, Rea and the other new signatories will have to wait up to five business days. before receiving the necessary entertainment visa for professional athletes to enter the country as paid artists. This secondary delay could take them to Japan near March 26, the opening day of the 143-game season.

Yet even then, another perilous obstacle may lie ahead: two weeks of quarantine.

Hiroshima Toyo Carp infielder Kevin Cron has experienced this before. He was the only new foreign signatory among the 12 NPB teams to enter the country before the travel ban, and was therefore able to participate in spring training for his team’s first practices.

The Carp announced the Cron deal at the end of November, among the first overseas signings. Former Arizona Diamondbacks member Cron describes himself as an “organization freak by nature” and says he’s obsessed with making sure his new team sends him his work papers so that he can apply for his visa quickly. He received it on December 23, just as rumors were starting to spread about possible increased travel restrictions caused by the discovery of new strains of the virus.

Originally scheduled to visit Japan in mid-January, Cron said Carp had urged him – twice – to postpone dates earlier this month. Then, during the Christmas holidays in North Carolina, Cron received a late night call indicating that a ban was imminent.

He returned to Arizona on the first flight the next morning, packed his bags, and rushed to Japan. He entered the country on January 3, the last day Japan accepted the new arrivals.

After this whirlwind trip, Cron had to endure the two-week quarantine period that likely awaits Thames, Rea, and the rest of the new signatories.

“I was hoping there would be a way to go out and work out every day, but I couldn’t even leave my apartment to take out the trash,” Cron said in a phone interview from Japan. “The team brought me training tapes and other stuff, and I asked my coaches back home to send me home workouts that they created at the start of the pandemic.”

A quarantine requirement will make an already unlikely goal – getting ready in time to play on opening day – impossible for the rest of the latecomers. Noting that there will be no such requirements for athletes arriving for the Tokyo Olympics in July, some in Japanese baseball are pushing to drop the requirement.

Thames’ new manager with the Giants, Tatsunori Hara, made the case to Japanese reporters at the start of spring training. He also enlisted Koji Murofushi, the commissioner of the government’s Japan Sports Agency and 2004 Athens Olympics gold medalist, to help ease the rules.

“There has to be a way to relax the rules as they apply to athletes without disrupting society as a whole,” Hara said. “It’s not just the baseball players. This concerns all athletes. Two weeks of inactive quarantine are detrimental to their profession. “

Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis. He covered baseball in Japan and the United States for over 20 years.