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Sunday, March 11, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Disaster had major impact on NPB


Here we are, exactly one year after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011. Japanese baseball has been greatly affected by the quake, the tsunami triggered by it and the subsequent radiation threats from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The earthquake is one of those events where everyone who experienced it will forever remember where they were when it hit or when they heard it had occurred. Like what happened in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, or if you are old enough, the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

The circumstances which dictated where I was at that time on that fateful Friday are baseball-related. A few days earlier, NTV had sent me a train ticket by registered mail for travel to Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, to cover a Yomiuri Giants-Chiba Lotte Marines exhibition game on March 19.

I was not at home, however, when the delivery attempt was made, so the postman left a slip in my mailbox with instructions to pick up the package at the main city post office.

So it was I left home about 2:40 p.m. on the 11th for the 10-minute drive across town. Six minutes later, I stopped in front of our town's performance hall because the taxi in front of me had also stopped and the driver got out and stood next to his car. At that point, something seemed ominously strange.

A few seconds later, I felt as if I were in a rowboat on an extremely rough sea. My car was swaying violently back and forth, and I could see utility poles and wires doing a dance. To my left, five full-sized buses were parked and waiting for the crowd to exit the culture center after a concert or play. It appeared the buses might even tip over as drivers stood outside helplessly trying to remain standing.

For the two-minute duration of the temblor, which seemed like five minutes, it felt as if the world was coming to an end. Sadly, for many, it did.

Meanwhile, at Yokohama Stadium, the BayStars and Yakult Swallows were playing an exhibition game which was stopped as the earth moved. Players, staff members and fans went to the field to avoid being hit by any falling objects.

Jason Coskrey, The Japan Times young baseball writer, wound up spending that night in the ballpark's press box, because train services had been stopped and would not resume until the next day, while nearby hotel rooms were quickly reserved.

There followed weeks of uncertainty with frequent aftershocks and escalating worries about the Fukushima nuclear situation. Japanese baseball officials bickered about whether the 2011 season's opening day, set for March 25, should be delayed and by how long.

Exhibition games, including the one in Kofu, were canceled, but teams got back to playing on the weekend of April 2-3. Regular-season games finally began on April 12 with a revised schedule for what would be called a "patchwork" season.

Teams played at unlikely venues with the Rakuten Eagles hosting home games in the Kansai area, and the Seibu Lions going to Ojiyama in Shiga Prefecture when their own home stadiums could not be used during April.

Three foreign players, apparently spooked by the word "radiation," quickly left Japan. Pitchers Brian Bannister of the Yomiuri Giants, Juan Morillo of the Eagles and Brent Leach of Yokohama exited the country. Bannister and Morillo never returned. Leach was welcomed back by the BayStars in June and expressed regret about having left.

"I should have stayed, but my wife was expecting a baby, and we kind of panicked," he admitted, prior to a game on Aug. 30 at Fukui. "I wish I could take back those three months I was gone. I made a mistake," he said.

Then-BayStars manager Takao Obana expressed confidence in Leach after he came back, but the pitcher was mostly ineffective, compiling a record of 1-7 with a 5.95 ERA in eight starts. Leach was released and has gone back to his former major league team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, on a minor league contract.

The 2011 season was eventually played out with constant reminders of the disasters. Games were held in some ballparks with reduced power and lighting, and staff at Tokyo Dome, where one game was stopped for a few moments during ground shaking, conducted "earthquake practice" prior to every game, urging fans to remain in their seats in case of emergency, because the building is strongly reinforced and quake resistant.

What needs to be mentioned again is the efforts of those who have helped so much with relief and assistance in the Tohoku area to achieve healing through baseball. Major League Baseball's "Tomodachi" campaign, for example, has done its part to return the game to youngsters in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures with donations of equipment, and to repair damaged playing fields.

Looking to the future, it appears Japanese baseball will be playing an All-Star Game in the Tohoku area at least for the next few years. One was played in Sendai last July, and Game 3 of the 2012 All-Star series is set for Iwate Prefectural Stadium in Morioka on July 23. In 2013, an All-Star Game will be played in Fukushima Prefecture.

Finally this week, as we look back on what has been a year of turmoil and anxiety, we remember those who were lost, and we hope and pray something like this does not occur again.

Gambare Nippon, and Play Ball!

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com



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