Japan’s travel ban has American baseball players in limbo
By Brad Lefton
As his friends and former teammates work out at major league spring training camps across Florida and Arizona, Colin Rea trudges through the snow of eastern Iowa doing his best to prepare for the season in surroundings that don’t lend themselves to the game.
After pitching in nine games for the Chicago Cubs last season, Rea signed with Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks over the winter. He fully expected to be training in the warmth of their southern Japan camp when it opened Feb. 1.
Instead, Rea — like more than a dozen other players who joined Japanese clubs in the offseason — is in limbo. Japan closed its borders to noncitizens and new arrivals Jan. 4 in a heightened effort to control the spread of the coronavirus. Originally in effect through Feb. 7, the current entry ban now extends through Sunday but is continually being reviewed.
Until the border reopens, Rea is preparing the best he can and trying to maintain a 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 telephone interview. “I have access to a weight room and indoor bullpen, so nothing outdoors yet, but it’s supposed to warm up to 30 degrees, so who knows?”
Rea is in regular contact with the Hawks, getting updates on the travel situation and sharing video of his training sessions so the team can monitor his progress.
Despite the unusual circumstance, it has an eerie familiarity.
“It’s kind of the same feeling as last spring and summer during the 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 bullpens and throw live BP [batting practice] and do what we can for workouts. So, to some degree, I feel like I know what I need to do to stay in shape 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 solid seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, signed with Japan’s Yomiuri Giants over the winter. Instead of training with them in Okinawa, however, he is stuck at his home in Las Vegas cobbling together a training routine.
“There were like 15 guys working out here, but they’re all gone to their camps now,” Thames said. “It’s down to just me and another guy who’s playing in the Mexican league this year. We’re throwing BP to each other and just doing what we can.”
In a bygone era of Japanese baseball, players from abroad frequently sauntered into spring training after their Japanese teammates, believing they did not require the longer training period. Thames, however, was planning for an on-time arrival, which has become standard practice.
“People don’t understand,” he said. “You need the whole time of spring training to get ready for a season. It’s important to get your timing down, to get your arm ready, to get your feet ready, to get your back ready. Besides that, it’s a 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 Hechavarría and Justin Smoak, who signed their first contracts with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) teams and now are — temporarily — stranded outside the country. There are 50 more foreign-based players who are returnees to Japan. Many of them were on time to training camp, as long as they obtained a reentry permit on their way back home in the fall.
For the new signees, though, the travel ban is a layered problem. Not only is entry to the country prohibited, but the issuance of new visas has been suspended since Dec. 28. That means even after the travel restrictions are relaxed, Thames, Rea and other new signees will have to wait as many as five working days before they receive the entertainment visa necessary for professional athletes to enter the country as compensated performers. That secondary delay could put them in Japan precariously close to March 26, which is opening day for the 143-game season.
Yet even then, another perilous obstacle may await: two weeks of quarantine.
Hiroshima Toyo Carp infielder Kevin Cron has already experienced it. He was the only new foreign signee among the 12 teams of NPB to have made it into the country before the travel ban and so was able to join spring training for his team’s first workouts.
The Carp announced Cron’s deal in late November, among the earliest of overseas signings. A former member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cron is a self-described “organization freak by nature” and said he obsessed about making sure his new team sent him his work papers so he could apply for his visa quickly. He received it Dec. 23, just as word started to spread of possible heightened travel restrictions prompted by the discovery of new strains of the virus.
Originally scheduled to fly to Japan in mid-January, Cron said the Carp urged him — twice — to reschedule for earlier dates that month. Then, while on a Christmas holiday in North Carolina, Cron got a late-night call that a ban was imminent.
He raced back to Arizona on the first flight the next morning, packed his bags and rushed to Japan. He entered the country Jan. 3, the last day that Japan accepted new arrivals.
After that whirlwind trip, Cron had to endure the two-week quarantine period that likely awaits Thames, Rea and the rest of the new signees.
“I was hoping there would be some way I could get out and work out every day, but I couldn’t even leave my apartment to take the trash out,” Cron said in a telephone interview from Japan. “The team brought me some workout bands and other stuff, and I had my trainers from home send me some at-home workouts they created at the beginning 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 pressing to drop the requirement.
Thames’ new manager with the Giants, Tatsunori Hara, made that case to Japanese reporters at the start of spring training. He also appealed to Koji Murofushi, the commissioner of the government’s Japan Sports Agency and a gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics, to help loosen the rules.
“There must be some way to relax the rules as they apply to athletes without disrupting society at large,” Hara said. “This isn’t just about baseball players. It concerns all athletes. Two weeks of inactive quarantine is detrimental to their craft.”