Baseball helps Japanese town to heal

BY foxsports • October 15, 2011

As the evening light drained from the sky, Rinnosuke Yoshida hurled one last pitch across the dusty practice field, a refuge amid the piles of debris left behind by the tsunami that hit Japan in March.

A 15-year-old local baseball star who aspires to play in college and one day turn pro, Rinnosuke spends his free time training -- lifting weights and trying to perfect his swing -- and grappling with the biggest decision of his life so far: to stay here or move to a bigger city inland to play high school baseball.

"My dad always used to give me advice on baseball and what to do next. I don't have that anymore," he said. "I think that's what I miss the most."

Rinnosuke's father, Toshiyuki Yoshida, was dragged off by the swirling black waters that ravaged this coastal community on March 11. His body still has not been found. Rinnosuke and his family now are contemplating a future far different from the one they once imagined.

Almost 20,000 people across Japan were lost within minutes to the massive earthquake and tsunami it spawned. In Rikuzentakata, nearly 2,000 of this city's 23,000 residents were torn away by the rampaging ocean, including more than 40 volunteer firefighters and a host of city workers, politicians and business leaders.

The waves took people like Toshiyuki Yoshida, a civic-minded Rikuzentakata native who worked at a small-business association and was actively involved in the community. He belonged to the local fire brigade. And he was passionate about baseball, the American sport transplanted to Japan in the late 1800s. For 14 years, he coached the team at the middle school he had attended as a boy and where his younger son is still a student.

Seven months after the disaster, survivors are still struggling to mend the holes ripped in Rikuzentakata's social fabric by so many deaths. They are searching for replacements to run the city's companies, operate its government, save its cultural institutions and nurture its sports teams.

In many ways, the human rebuilding is a tougher challenge than the physical reconstruction of Rikuzentakata and other cities like it on Japan's northeast coast.

"With enough money, infrastructure can be replaced. For people, of course, it's not that easy," Rikuzentakata mayor Futoshi Toba said. His wife, Kumi, was among the dead. "The community needs to work together so the thoughts and ideas of the people who passed away can be carried on," Toba added.

As US baseball fans focus on next week's World Series, the sport is playing a critical role in sustaining the family Toshiyuki Yoshida left behind in Japan: his wife, 41-year-old Kazue, and two sons Rinnosuke and Shinnosuke, 16.

Both boys are obsessed with baseball. Rinnosuke, a pitcher at Yonesaki Middle School, played this fall on a regional all-star team. Shinnosuke is a catcher and vice captain at Takata High School.

Yuta Niinuma, one of Yoshida's former proteges and a pitcher, is an assistant coach at the middle school and has become a mentor to the boys, especially Rinnosuke. He works with them in between his shifts at a local poultry processing plant.

"It's a way to pay back what his father taught me," Niinuma said.

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