Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Month After the Quake and Tsunami, Baseball Begins in Japan

This story originally appeared in Baseball Reflections on April 20, 2011.

In Tokyo and throughout eastern Japan, offices are a little darker, and fewer escalators are running in an attempt to conserve electricity. But cherry blossoms are in full bloom, a sign of spring, rebirth, and renewal. Another sign of spring – and, ultimately, a return to business as usual ­– is the start of Nippon Professional Baseball’s 2011 season. After postponing opening day, which was originally scheduled for March 28, baseball in Japan began on April 12, one month and one day after the horrific earthquake and tsunami destroyed villages and lives in Japan’s Tohoku region northeast of Tokyo.

Cherry Blossoms in Ueno Park, Tokyo. Photo by Ed Peterman

Aftershocks greeted players and fans during the first game, a reminder that the disaster is still fresh. But they played on, and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, the team most directly affected by the events of March 11, won its first game against the defending Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines. The Eagles’ home stadium is located in Sendai, near the quake’s epicenter, and sustained considerable damage: Cracked walls, flooded suites, fallen office ceilings. As a result, the Sendai-based team will play its home games in the Osaka area until further notice.

Rakuten’s opening-day starter was Hisashi Iwakuma, the pitcher who was this close to leaving NPB for the Oakland Athletics. Former major leaguer Kaz Matsui, who joined the Eagles in the offseason, played his first game in Japan since 2003. He and his fellow Eagles visited tsunami-ravaged areas and were impressed by the strength of the survivors. The team has become the darlings of the season, bringing inspiration to a region and a country that has suffered great heartache. As of this writing, the Eagles are 4-2, good for first place in the Pacific League.

Attendance was understandably down in the first week of the new season, but fans did make the effort to watch baseball, some driving fifteen hours to see their favorite teams. A few even made the trek from the United States to see games and show their support. Ed Peterman of San Diego is currently in Japan as part of JapanBall, a group that ushers groups on Japanese baseball trips. Peterman and three others from the States joined JapanBall organizers Bob Bavasi and Mayumi Smith to experience Japanese baseball for one week. (Two others dropped out before the tour began, presumably due to the recent tragedies.)
As the NPB has asked teams and stadiums to conserve as much energy as possible, Bavasi had to adjust the itinerary to accommodate more day games. The group has felt several significant aftershocks in Tokyo, “Five in the 5.4+ range and two above 7.1,” says Peterman, but they have traveled from Tokyo to points west via bullet train with no issues.

Beer Vendor at Meiji Jingu Stadium, Tokyo. Photo by Ed Peterman

Peterman says, “The mood at the games has been very enthusiastic . . . and things appear to be normal.” After seeing a game at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, Peterman and his fellow Japanese baseball enthusiasts took in a contest between the Orix Buffaloes and the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Koshien Stadium, which the hometown Hanshin Tigers are sharing during this crisis. The group also saw the Tigers and the Chunichi Dragons at the Nagoya Dome, where, according to the website Yakyu Baka, 34,329 fans were in attendance.

Koshien Stadium, temporary home of the Rakuten Golden Eagle. Photo by Ed Peterman

With no NPB games scheduled on Monday, the members of the tour enjoyed a day of sightseeing in Kyoto, the historic city of temples. The weather was pleasant, and the city welcomed the tourists during a time when foreigners are reluctant to travel to Japan.

Cherry blossoms in Kyoto. Photo by Ed Peterman

Is Japan back to normal? Hardly, but cherry blossoms and baseball are helping to make the transition.

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