A month before he was supposed to begin his second season in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, Zach Neal, an American pitcher, received what he called the highest honor in his career. The manager of his team, the Saitama Seibu Lions, gathered the players for a clubhouse ceremony in February to announce that Neal would be the Lions’ opening day starter.
For a player who struggled to find a regular spot on an American major league roster after being drafted in 2010 and then endured a similarly bumpy start in Japan, the news felt like a crowning achievement.
“I’d have to put this above even my M.L.B. debut at Fenway Park,” Neal, 31, said in a telephone interview from Tokyo.
Little did he know at the time of the announcement, however, that he would face several more difficult months before realizing his big moment.
After a 91-day delay because of the coronavirus, Japan’s league is set to begin on Friday, and Neal is expected to be the only foreign-born pitcher in the 12-team competition to start on opening day when his Lions face the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
While Japan has contained the virus better than most countries, with fewer than 1,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19 through Thursday, the pandemic has decimated sports in the country, forcing the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the cancellation of cultural mainstays like the national high school baseball tournament and Grand Sumo’s spring matches.
So as the exasperated island nation looks to baseball for hope, part of the responsibility for healing will be placed in the right hand of a resident of Fort Worth who bounced around four M.L.B. organizations before finding himself in Japan.
“Baseball is one of the favorite pastimes of this country, so finally being able to start playing is a very symbolic thing and a huge lift for the country,” Neal said. “For the manager to give me the ball is a huge privilege.”
Originally scheduled to open on March 20, Japan’s season will begin without fans at the stadiums. Teams will play 120 games, reduced from the usual 143, culminating in a Japan Series championship — the league’s World Series equivalent — that will begin about one month later than normal, on Nov. 21.
For Neal and the rest of the league, it has been an agonizing wait of twists, turns, stops and starts. As the coronavirus hit the country, fans were prohibited from training camps in late February, but the league forged ahead in the hopes of being able to start the season on time, or with only a short delay.
An April 10 targeted start was moved to April 24. When that became unrealistic, the season was pushed to May, and eventually June. All the while, Neal and his wife were living in an apartment in the far western reaches of suburban Tokyo, a 30-minute drive from Seibu’s home park.
Neal said he quelled his restlessness by reading John Grisham novels and painting American western themes in acrylic. Eventually, Seibu’s stadium opened four days a week for voluntary workouts, and then a second spring training began May 18.
Exhibition games resumed June 2, with Neal getting two starts before Friday’s opener. Once again, he had to accept a new normal of health protocols.
“We get our temperature taken before we’re allowed to enter the ballpark every day,” he said. “We wear masks in the weight room, and there’s hand sanitizer everywhere. If you lick your fingers on the mound, they throw the ball out. Each night we get an email asking a bunch of questions. We’re not supposed to eat out, play golf or go anywhere except the field, the grocery store and home. It’s definitely different.”
Despite the heightened health concerns, two Yomiuri Giants players received positive results from a coronavirus test hours before an exhibition game against Neal’s Lions. It was abruptly canceled, and all players were sent home.
“We thought: Oh, no. Here we go again,” Neal said. “But those guys played the day before and didn’t have symptoms. That just shows you how weird this thing is.”
The two players, Hayato Sakamoto and Takumi Oshiro, were held out for 14 days. In the aftermath, Nippon Professional Baseball determined that all game-related employees, including players, coaches, managers, staff members and umpires, would be required to give a saliva sample for a test once a month beginning in June.
For Neal, it was just another speed bump in his baseball odyssey in Japan. Last season, he stumbled to a 1-1 record and an ugly 5.95 E.R.A. in four April starts. Those struggles earned him a demotion to the minor leagues, the termination point of many journeymen’s journeys, especially foreigners cast there on the flimsiness of a one-year contract, as Neal was.
But he was determined to adapt, even in the loneliness of Japan’s minor leagues. As he struggled to get accustomed to the barrage of unfamiliar hitters, Neal also found himself scuffling to get used to a longer routine between starts: Pitchers typically get six days off between starts in Japan, whereas four days is the norm in the U.S.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 16, 2020
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
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Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
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A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
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Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
“I didn’t like it at first,” Neal said. “How much and when should I throw? What about weight lifting? It was tough to adjust, but I understood I would have to if I wanted to stay.”
He sought advice from his coaches on pitching techniques necessary to survive in Japan. One minor league coach from Taiwan had done exactly that over an unspectacular yet productive career in Japan that lasted 14 years. He told Neal to develop a cutter to complement his sinker and changeup.
Neal listened. He was recalled on June 20 last season, wielding a new arsenal that led to a stunning turnaround: He went on to become the fourth foreigner in Japanese baseball to win 11 consecutive decisions. From June 20 forward, he was 11-0 in 13 starts with an earned run average of 2.12.
Bob Melvin, the Oakland A’s manager who gave Neal the ball for his debut at Fenway Park in 2016, was unsurprised that Neal had earned the respect of his manager in Japan, Hatsuhiko Tsuji.
“Zach’s a grinder,” Melvin said in a telephone interview. “He’s persevered, and that takes mental toughness. Managers spend spring training making roster cuts and difficult decisions, so believe me, you look forward to being able to recognize a guy with the honor of starting opening day.”
The delays and added protocols have not fazed Neal, and his endurance has earned him an unlikely role in delivering a dose of optimism to the country of his latest journey.