Time for NPB to Fix Schedule

Heading into last weekend’s playoff series at Koshien, the weather forecast looked quite grim. The best-of-three schedule was to see Game 1 played Saturday, Game 2 on Sunday, and Game 3 on Monday. Tuesday was a rain date in case it would be needed. The Final Stage of the Climax Series has been scheduled to start on Wednesday in Hiroshima, and that date cannot be changed.

Somehow the rain that was supposed to fall on Saturday did not, and Hanshin pulled out a clean 2-0 victory in Game 1. So the scenario changed vastly…

If Hanshin could win or tie Game 2 on Sunday, the series would be over. No need for Monday or Tuesday. But if Yokohama were to pull out the victory on Sunday, then Game 3 would be needed.

If Sunday were rained out, then Game 2 would be on Monday, and Game 3 on Tuesday. HOWEVER, if Monday were also rained out (and it turns out that it has been), then Game 2 would be on Tuesday. But wait. Then the best the BayStars could do would be a tied series. In which case Hanshin would advance by virtue of a tiebreaker rule. In which case Game 2 would not be played at all. In which case Game 1 would be the lone playoff game to determine who would move on.

That having been established, let’s get back to what actually did happen. The rains forecast for Saturday fell at night, and the rains forecast for Sunday started around 11:00 am, and have yet to cease. (It’s currently Monday 5:00 pm.) The infield at Koshien is all dirt. Rain plus dirt means muck. A tarp covered the field from Saturday night until Sunday around scheduled game time (2:00 pm). But the outfield was slick, and the infield didn’t take long to liquefy after the tarps were removed for the action.

The game was played despite lousy field conditions (see more pics here), and the result was a complete mess. No, I’m not talking about the score (the Tigers lost 13-6). The field at Koshien Stadium was in such bad state throughout the game, that puddles swamps formed behind the mound and throughout the infield. Ground balls died in the mud and became infield singles. Balls that reached the outfield died in the rice paddy-like conditions, requiring extra precarious strides from outfielders, allowing extra bases to be taken. Brush-back pitches caused players to hit the deck and get back up with mud caked on half their bodies. It’s a miracle no one got hurt. Whether or not anyone got sick from standing in the rain that long is still undetermined. How many fans suffered from sitting through 5.5 hours (including 1-hour delayed start) of downpour?

So who had the gall to let this game be played out? None other than NPB itself. The situation was explained by some clown in their front office: “The decision was made based on the fact that this is the Climax Series. The pervading thought despite the terrible field conditions was to let the game be played as planned. And once the game started, the umpires were to let it continue through nine innings as much as possible. The circumstances were such that two rainouts would have resulted in a team advancing to the next round by default, so our decision was made partly with that in mind.” And also, “Once the game started there were certain points at which it could have been called, but the umpires were hoping to go 9. With advancing to the Final Stage on the line, top priority was not to call the game, but to play it out.”

OK. I kind of understand that. Much like the annoying English education system here, everything gets scheduled based on the end point. (In English education, it’s university entrance exams that dictate what is done in high school, thus how English is taught in junior high and even earlier.) The Nippon Series has a fixed timetable. It is slated for 7 games in a 9 day stretch, with weekend dates as the bookends. So the Climax Series must be finished a couple of days before that. Throw in rain dates for that best-of-seven six, and you’re backing yourself up to a Wednesday start 10 days before the Nippon Series. Back that up and you want a weekend series for the First Stage of the Climax Series, which starts on a Saturday. Only time for one rain date.

But does it HAVE to be that way? Stadium economics dictate that ideally, you want two games in the First Stage best-of-three on the weekend. Best if those are Games 1 and 2, which are “must play” (weather permitting, haha). And the Final Stage should have two “must play” games on a weekend, too. And the two weekends for the Nippon Series make sense. But something’s got to give. Really. Because what happened over the weekend at Koshien is not fair to players or fans.

And while we’re looking for solutions, let’s stop the regular seasons grinding to an annoyingly slow end, too. NPB insists on taking Mondays off during the season. The day is used both as a travel day for teams and a “day of rest” for media outlets. So pretty much all rainouts end up being played in September or October (months that notoriously have a fair amount of rain in most of Japan, mind you). There’s a four-day period after the interleague schedule for interleague rainouts to be made up. This year, one game needed to be played during that time. ONE. Meanwhile, several “regular” league games could have been made up during that time, saving a few days of garbage-time games in September/October. This season, the 12 NPB teams ended their regular seasons on 6 different days (over a 10-day span). As far as I know, the 30 MLB teams ended in unison on October 1, giving season’s end a nice, crisp feel to it. Not so in NPB, though.

Mondays are as sacred as a Middle East Sabbath, it seems. Perhaps one way to loosen the grips of legality off the issue is to extend the make-up dates after interleague, allowing for regular league games to be played then, and doing the same before and after the all-star games. (That weekend can also be shortened — no need for 2 games anymore.)

Perhaps I just sound like a grumpy expat complaining that “Japan needs to do things more like they do in America.” But I’ve read plenty of articles from plenty of pats who feel the same way.

NPB, it’s time for you to wake up and smell the rain-soaked grass. And mud. We gotta change this scheduling issue once and for all. No more Mud Bowl games, please.

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.