Eagles faced with formidable obstacles in wake of disaster in Tohoku



That’s the word that most often comes to mind when thinking about what has been happening here in Japan over the past week.

In the grand scheme of things, baseball games and scores are not important, and the 2011 Japan pro baseball season, whenever it starts, will begin with an air of sadness hanging over every ballpark.

I did a telephone interview with MLB Radio in the U.S. last Saturday morning, about 21 hours after the 9.0 earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. on Friday afternoon. The hosts asked where in Tokyo I was at that time (in my car, driving to the post office), what I did (sat there and prayed the shaking would end soon) and how it felt (extremely scary).

They also asked if I thought, eventually, baseball would serve as a “healer” to help the people in Japan — and especially Sendai — recover from this catastrophic event. I had to respond, unfortunately, we went through something like this in 1995 after the Great Hanshin Earthquake destroyed the city of Kobe.

Sixteen years ago, the Kobe-based Orix BlueWave helped inspire and encourage the citizens. Ichiro Suzuki was the star of the team, and the players wore the slogan “Gambare Kobe” on the sleeves of their uniform tops, encouraging the Kansai fans to hang in there. The success of that team seemed to lift the spirits of those in the area.

Managed by Akira Ogi, the BlueWave used some “Ogi magic” and won the ’95 Pacific League pennant, initiating celebration in Kobe. Orix lost to the Yakult Swallows in the Japan Series but won another league title in 1996 and beat the Yomiuri Giants to become Japan champions.

Also in July of 1995, a special All-Star Game was held at Fukuoka Dome to help raise funds for the victims of the Kobe disaster. The game matched an all-foreign player squad managed by Bobby Valentine, then the field boss of the Chiba Lotte Marines, against a select team of Japanese stars led by then-Daiei Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh.

Now it is Sendai and the Rakuten Eagles severely crippled by last week’s earthquake and tsunami. The Eagles were scheduled to open the 2011 season at home with back-to-back series against Chiba Lotte on March 25-27 and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on March 29-31. The Pacific League’s season openers have been postponed, though, Nippon Professional Baseball decided on Tuesday.

For those who asked, Rakuten senior adviser Marty Kuehnert and his family are safe, although Kuehnert said the situation in Sendai “dwarfs the Kobe earthquake,” and it is going to take time to return to a situation anywhere near normal.

Reports indicate there does not seem to be any major damage to Kleenex Stadium Miyagi, but of course the structure will need to be inspected and checked thoroughly for safety to accommodate 22,000 fans. Also, it is not known how quickly the Rakuten team offices can be cleaned up and made ready to resume business operations.

If experience counts, though, the Eagles staff members know how to work quickly, having started from scratch with an expansion team on Nov. 2, 2004, and they had everything ready to play on Opening Day, March 26, 2005.

One big difference between 1995 and now, however, is the fact the Kobe earthquake occurred on Jan. 17, prior to the start of spring training and 10 weeks before Opening Day.

This year the Sendai temblor, appearing much worse, hit just two weeks before the scheduled season openers, and who knows when the uncertainty of the situation will end?

Ironically, there was warm and sunny weather in the Kanto area over the weekend when the Eagles were to have played exhibition games in Tokyo and Yokohama. Those games were canceled and, instead of going to Jingu Stadium to watch Rakuten play the Yakult Swallows, I was home answering e-mails from family and friends who asked the same question, “Are you OK?”

The message senders ranged from Japanese fan and correspondent Ken Shimada in Colorado to former Nankai Hawks player Jeff Doyle to current Softbank Hawks pitcher D.J. Houlton writing from Fukuoka.

Shimada informed us the Japanese-American Community in Denver is one of many organizations accepting donations of money and clothing for the quake victims.

Doyle and his wife, Liz, expressed their concern, having fondly remembered their two years in Japan and Jeff’s playing days as the Nankai second baseman in Osaka in 1984-85.

Houlton had two things on his mind; first and foremost the Tohoku people suffering in the aftermath of the disaster, and D.J. also figured he might start on March 29 against the Eagles in Sendai.