Baseball in Japan: a time to heal ... and cheer
Players stood along the baseline, heads bowed. Fans observed a moment of silence. In the stands, spectators held signs reading, ''Stay Strong Japan.'' Away from the ballpark, those who no longer have homes, watched the game on television from shelters.
It was time to play baseball again in Japan - opening day. It was also a time for honor and remembrance in a country convulsed by a deadly earthquake and tsunami and worsening radiation leak.
''Despite the difficult conditions, we are able to open the season because everybody helped us to do it,'' said Rakuten Eagles infielder Kazuo Matsui, an infielder who has played in the U.S. major leagues with the New York Mets, Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros.
A crowd of 22,525 attended the Pacific League opener at QVC Marine Field. In the latest aftershock, a 6.3-magnitude quake struck early Tuesday, and another could be felt in the stadium during the game.
''I want to carry this feeling of appreciation for the whole year by playing baseball,'' Matsui said. ''During training camp, I went to a shelter and I saw people there with energy in their faces. I went there expecting to cheer them up, but instead they cheered me up. That's why I want to play hard.''
Matsui's Eagles beat the defending champion Chiba Lotte Marines 6-4. The Eagles' home of Sendai has been one of the hardest hit by last month's catastrophe. The team is unable to use its stadium until April 29.
Rakuten pitcher Darrell Rasner, who has played with the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees, thought the fans in Japan were glad to see the season start.
''It is a sense of normalcy for them,'' he said. ''It's something that's ingrained in them and, you know, I think this is going to be a healing process. This is going to be a great thing for them. Just for them to have something to cheer about, something to be happy about. I am and my teammates are really excited to be a part of this.''
This will be a season like no other in Japan. Games are usually played at night, but the league is scheduling more during daytime to accommodate power cuts.
Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino has said he wants to win the championship this season for the people of Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture. His team made an encouraging start.
Motohiro Shima hit a tiebreaking three-run homer in the seventh inning for the Eagles. Hisashi Iwakuma gave up three runs in 8 1-3 innings. Kazuya Fukuura brought the Marines close with a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth but the rally stopped there. Iwakuma was replaced by Ryan Speier, who closed it out.
The Eagles and Marines were playing a preseason game in Akashi when the earthquake and tsunami struck March 11. The Eagles have been moving from city to city for preseason games since, and gathering support.
Hisako Aoyama, a 47-year-old translator, lived in the Tokyo area but now is behind Rakuten all the way.
''I want to go to as many games as possible that the Eagles will play in the Tokyo area,'' Aoyama said. ''And I am wearing this (Rakuten colors) to show my support for the team and to cheer up people in the north.''