The new coronavirus outbreak cost Japan a pillar of its spring sporting scene on Wednesday as the Japan High School Baseball Federation canceled its national invitational tournament for the first time in history.
"This is a bitter decision," said Masahiro Maruyama, the chief executive of the Mainichi Shimbun and the tournament's chairman. "Our greatest priority has to be on safety."
"We are filled with a sense of regret over this unfortunate outcome," he said.
It is the first time since its establishment in 1924 that a "senbatsu" tournament at historic Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, will not be held as scheduled. No tournaments were scheduled between 1942 and 1946 during World War II and its immediate aftermath.
The stadium, just west of Osaka, was built to house the national summer high school baseball championships and opened in time to host the 10th edition of that tournament in August 1924 and the second senbatsu the following spring.
Koshien is known as the mecca of Japanese baseball, and competing there in one of the two big tournaments -- broadcast nationwide from start to finish -- is a commonly held dream among young boys who take up the sport. Tearful defeated players scooping ballpark dirt into small bags to take home is an iconic image of the tournaments.
(The opening ceremony of the national high school baseball tournament held at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, western Japan, on Aug. 6, 2019.)
Twice in the past there had been calls to cancel the invitational, in the wake of the Jan. 17, 1995, Great Hanshin Earthquake, and again following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan.
Wednesday's announcement came on the ninth anniversary of the quake-tsunami disaster, which left more than 15,000 dead and triggered a nuclear disaster.
This year's invitational was set to get under way on March 19. As part of the effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, the federation had been asked to either cancel the tournament or hold it behind closed doors.
For a week, the federation and tournament officials had tried to work out a plan to stage the tournament, and had already canceled official practices at Koshien.
"At this stage it would have been difficult to ensure the players could play in a secure and safe environment," Maruyama said.
On Feb. 26, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked bodies holding sports events for self-restraint in an effort to prevent large numbers of people from gathering and increasing the rate of infection. The following day, Abe asked that elementary, junior high and high schools be closed until the end of spring vacation in April.
Professional soccer games and the start of the pro baseball season are currently on hold until after the start of April. On Sunday, the Japan Sumo Association opened a 15-day grand tournament behind closed doors for the first time in the sport's history.
On Wednesday, Japan's professional basketball league, the B-League, announced it would hold all of its 131 first- and second-division games between March 14 and April 1 behind closed doors.
The national high school baseball championships were canceled twice in the past, in 1918 due to rice riots that disrupted Japan that summer, and again in 1941 due to the worsening war situation.