MLB shows support to tsunami-damaged area
A's, Mariners team up for Little League clinic in Northeast Japan
ISHINOMAKI, Japan -- The first thing you notice is the smell.
The windows are open in the bus and the odor rushes in with the wind. It's acrid, nauseating and all-encompassing. It's the smell of death, and it's still here, a year later.
It's all there in front of you -- everything you read about beginning on March 11, 2011, everything you saw on television and in small pictures on computer monitors that might have given you pause during a work day or at night before you drifted off to sleep but dissolved into the inevitable next day's news cycle of a complicated world.
Now you can't look away. It's right out the window, sitting there in stark silence, announcing its presence with indelible images framed by that awful, unforgettable smell.
Piles of debris from collapsed houses, twisted rebar, tires, lumber, and who knows what else heaped as high as apartment buildings. A shoreline stacked and lined with the shells of rusted-out, mangled cars and trucks. Blown-out windows and barely standing foundations of the homes that weren't swallowed whole by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that took more than 15,000 lives up and down 150 miles of a once-thriving coastline -- about 5,000 of them right here in a city that once totaled more than 164,000 residents.
And more: an empty two-acre corner dirt lot in the shadow of a paper mill where a factory once churned into the night. A 40-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide decorative red logo can boasting the wares of a seaside fish-packing plant, now dented and lying on its side by the road, almost 1,000 feet from where it once stood with blue-collar pride.
And even more: subdivisions recognizable only by their earliest zoning markers, makeshift graveyards dotting the barren remains of street corners where elementary schools were swept away into the angry waters.
On Tuesday afternoon, the traveling party from Major League Baseball, the Oakland A's, the Seattle Mariners and American and Japanese media members ventured into this hallowed ground on the way to the local baseball stadium, where they were to meet with local Little Leaguers, put on a clinic, enjoy a hot lunch, present a $500,000 check to aid in stadium refurbishment, and maybe conjure up a smile or two before heading back to Tokyo to prepare for Wednesday's Opening Day festivities.
As the buses rolled through the tsunami zone, the only sounds were the clicking of cameras and the rush to huddle by windows and observe the horrifying images that would never be forgotten. Soon enough, however, the vehicles took a turn.
The sun was warming a crisp spring day when the ballpark appeared, flanked by hundreds of children and families waiting in a line. The kids, plucked from the local Little Leagues, were well prepared to greet their heroes. They beamed in their spotless uniforms. Appropriately, it seemed that half wore A's caps and half donned hats bedecked by the Seattle "S."
The players and officials exited the buses to cheers, high fives and cat calls for autographs. Pitchers Tyson Ross, Tommy Milone and Evan Scribner represented the A's, along with their special adviser, Phil Garner, their president, Michael Crowley, and their elephant mascot, Stomper. The Mariners brought along pitchers Hector Noesi and Japanese native Hisashi Iwakuma, third baseman Alex Liddi, their manager, Eric Wedge, and their mascot, the Mariner Moose.
Suddenly the landscape brightened from smiles. The children huddled around Stomper and the Moose, hugging the larger-than-life animal characters and laughing. They posed for pictures. They shouted out the English they'd been learning: "How's it going?" and "Thank you very much."
MLB senior vice president of international business operations Paul Archey and Jim Small, the vice president of MLB Asia, handed the check to local officials and the players went off with the kids to play catch, talk a little baseball and do some drills. Their parents and families, the ones who survived last year's horrors but surely had tragic stories to tell, sat in the stands or roamed the grounds, joyful and content, if just for a day.
"I think, first of all, we're honored to be part of something like this," Archey said while standing near first base of the dirt infield. "And humbled. When you go through the city to get here, it really makes it personal.
"I've heard the Commissioner say many times that baseball is a social institution and a global institution, and that's never more evident than today and what you see going on here."
For each of the players, Tuesday represented something different. Milone, the A's young left-hander, said he was grateful to be here, thankful that he was given the opportunity to make children smile.
"We can't be in their shoes, we can't feel what they felt a year ago when the tsunami hit, but you can kind of get a feeling for the kind of people that they are," Milone said.
"They come out here and they're still smiling, even though something devastating like that happens. You feel like they're strong and they're going to be able to go on with their lives."
Having baseball around helps.
Shoshin Kometani, a local official, helps oversee the Little Leagues. He explained that many of the children from this area went to an elementary school that was leveled by the tsunami. Many have been forced out of their prefecture into other districts. Many are still living in temporary homes. Many receive their baseball instruction at home.
But Tuesday represented a small look into a better future. MLB and the MLB Players Association and partners are working together to refurbish the earthquake-damaged ballpark. A new drainage system will be put in, along with synthetic turf.
"You see their faces," Kometani said through an interpreter. "As you can see, the kids are smiling and happy, and living around here is not happy, so that is really good after this devastation."
The players and coaches and MLB officials were smiling, too, through the clinic and the ensuing lunch, when the players served Tonjiru, a traditional Japanese meal of steaming hearty pork stew, to the children and families who still struggle every day to piece their lives back together.
"It's pure devastation," Wedge said. "But the fact that we can help this baseball field and give these kids and these parents somewhere to go and play and have some sense of enjoyment from time to time as they're rebuilding everything, hopefully that's a start to something and a new beginning."
Like many of Tuesday's visitors, Wedge couldn't help but keep looking around, speechless at times and amazed at the unfettered elation he was witnessing from people whose worlds literally disappeared right in front of them only a year ago.
"Give them hope," he said. "Let these kids get back on track. It lets them know that they're not alone in this thing."
Wedge then pointed to a gaggle of Little Leaguers mugging for a video camera, raising the No. 1 finger or the peace sign, pumped beyond belief to be hobnobbing with real Major Leaguers.
"That," he said, "is the way they should look all the time."