It's a beautiful, sunny afternoon at Jingu Stadium in central Tokyo as the Yakult Swallows and Seibu Lions take the field Thursday for a preseason baseball game.
But the mood is far from festive.
With the lingering threat of nuclear radiation hanging in the air and thoughts turning to the thousands of dead and displaced in northern Japan, many players are wondering why they are even on the field in the first place.
Several foreign players have already left the country. Yomiuri Giants first-year pitcher Brian Bannister was the first to go, and he was soon followed by the American players on the Seibu Lions and Yokohama BayStars. While Bannister left against the team's wishes and is unlikely to return to Japan, the BayStars and Lions gave their foreign players permission to leave the country for a few days, although they reportedly did so grudgingly. Other players are likely to leave over the next few days as well.
Some of the Swallows import players practiced Thursday morning but left the stadium at game time, preferring to stay indoors. Like Wednesday's game at Jingu against the Giants, this one was being played with no fans in attendance.
The Central League is planning--so far, at least--to stick to its scheduled March 25 Opening Day, while the Pacific League is looking at bumping its regular-season openers back to April 12. The Rakuten Eagles' home stadium in Sendai suffered structural damage in last Friday's M9.0 earthquake, as did the parking lot at Chiba's QVC Marines Field .
CL team owners and GMs have said that they want to start the season on time to lift the spirits of the people and to give them a diversion in these stressful times. But many players--and not just the foreigners--think it's still much too soon to get back to "business as usual."
"I don't think we should start the season on time," said veteran Swallows infielder Shinya Miyamoto. "We should delay the season, and everyone should start on the same day as the PL. Under these circumstances, it's too early to begin on March 25. We want to encourage the people, give them hope, but it's still too early. Also, we shouldn't use all that electricity at night considering they will have blackouts (to conserve power)."
His comments were echoed by Yakult pitcher Masanori Ishikawa, as well as others.
"It's obviously a very tough decision," said Swallows pitcher Tony Barnette, when asked about going ahead with the season on March 25.
"Do I think it's the best decision? No. My own personal opinion is that people need time to mourn, they need time to emotionally and mentally get their heads around the situation. I just think that there are more important things than baseball going on right now."
One proposal put forth by some of the veteran players was to have day games on weekends through April with all the proceeds going to charity, but management nixed that idea.
So, as the country finds itself facing one calamity after another, the games go on.
"Yesterday was pretty bizarre," said Barnette, who threw three innings in Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Giants. "It was tough to wake up in the morning and get focused for a game."