Japan Delays First Pitch, Players Rally Around Disaster Victims

PHOTO: Seen here former player Hideki Okajima, right, and active roster Boston Red Sox player Daisuke Matsuzaka.
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The signature sounds of a new baseball season echoed outside northern Japan's Kesennuma high school on a recent afternoon. Evacuees displaced by the March 11 tsunami in the Miyagi Prefecture gathered around a large truck equipped with a TV screen armed with thunder sticks and megaphones. Young men dressed in traditional, black high school uniforms led the crowd with orchestrated cheers, beating their drums.

The small crowd exuded the passion and enthusiasm that baseball-lovers have come to expect from the country's most rabid baseball fans – except, the fans were rooting for the Tohoku High School Team in quake-ravaged Sendai, not Sendai's professional Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The professional baseball season has been delayed twice in Japan. This country's national pastime was forced to take a back seat to a national tragedy, despite initial pleas from the league to play on.

Japan's players, including stars who are now playing in America, have rallied to help the victims of the disaster.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka donated $1 million to the Japanese Red Cross. Seattle Mariners' outfielder Ichiro Suzuki donated about $1.2 million to the Red Cross, as well. The Marines planned to dedicate the first six games to northern Japan's relief efforts.

The region's struggles are personal for Suzuki, whose former team the Orix Blue Wave inspired the city of Kobe by winning the Pacific League in 1995, the year another massive earthquake killed more than 6,000 people, and devastated the region.

In the aftermath of Japan's worst natural disaster, the powerful Central League – home to the dominant Yomiuri Giants, the Yankees of Japan – lobbied to open the season as scheduled. In exchange, the league offered to scrap night games in areas suffering from power shortages, and dim the lights in other night games.

That push to play was met with criticism and a boycott of the games especially after the rival Pacific League agreed to push back their opening day.

"I think the games can lift the spirits of victims who were hit hardest," said Giants fan Kiyoshi Yamada. "But we must be mindful those same people are crying and struggling every day."

The government pressured the Central League to reconsider. The league initially postponed the season start to March 29. Last week, the Central League caved in further, postponing the season to mid-April, in line with the Pacific league.

The debate over the start of professional baseball in Japan, has taken on an emotional tone, in a country known for its stoicism. Just like the New York Yankees after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina, the games are seen as a welcome distraction at a time of national struggle. Other baseball fans say it's naïve to think a sports game can uplift those who have lost everything.

Japanese Baseball Players Rally Around Disaster Victims

"The evacuees can't be bothered with sports," said Motonori Mizuguchi. "The talk of sports inspiring in a time of need should be saved for next year. This isn't the appropriate time."

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles have become the face of sports in this disaster. The strong quake cracked walls and hallways at their stadium in Sendai. Tsunami waves flooded the team's offices and suites. Since the disasters hit, the players have spear headed fundraising efforts at train stations and community events to help displaced fans.

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