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March 27, 2012 at 2:56 AM

A trip more important than any baseball game

Today was an off-day for the Mariners and Oakland Athletics and a handful of players from both teams spent it doing something they won’t soon forget. Mariners infieder Alexi Liddi and pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Hector Noesi joined manager Eric Wedge in holding a baseball clinic in the town of Ishinomaki, devastated by last year’s deadly earthquake and tsunami.

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If you were watching the blog earlier — and I could see that many of you were — you saw the live footage we carried for you (shown below) as we entered the area of the town right next to the sea where the tsunami first struck some 34 minutes after the 9.0-magnitude quake. A 16-foot-high wave tore into the town’s port, wiping out much of what was standing there.
Over 5,000 people died in this area alone and more than 50,000 were instantly left homeless. Many of the elementary school children you see in the video footage lost family and friends and had to be relocated to temporary housing.

At one point in the live footage, you’ll see a giant can from a whaling factory — bigger than our bus — that was carried about two thirds of a mile up to the side of the highway where we passed by it. That footage isn’t all that clear, but what can you do? We were bringing it to you live from half a world away.
The idea behind staging the clinic wasn’t that a few ballplayers showing up were automatically going to make things better again. There are no instant fixes for disasters of this scale, as anyone who has been to Haiti could tell you. I visited the other side of Hispaniola, the island where Haiti is located, in 1998 after Hurricane Georges roared through the Dominican Republic.
There was ample devastation back then and it took years before some basic things — like bridges — were fixed.

Things are a bit different in a First World country like Japan, which has the resources to rebuild more quickly than a Third World nation like the Dominican or Haiti. But the scope of the disaster here was enormous — as it was in Haiti’s case — and put a severe strain on the country and its economy. There was also a nuclear fallout issue to potentially deal with when one of the country’s major reactors failed.
So, it’s been a tough time. As with any great disaster, comparing it to others isn’t really the point — as anyone from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina could tell you. Human suffering doesn’t come with economic protectors attached. The people from this region experienced a nightmare and the children who live here were traumatized by what they saw.
The local ballpark was a focal point of community activity and it was badly damaged by the quake, to the point of being unusable. It was also used as a major staging area for relief efforts.
So, MLB and its Players’ Association, in a small, but thoughtful gesture, is providing $500,000 to help the community rebuild the ballpark. No, it isn’t a grand amount of money relative to what the average player makes. Minimum salary in MLB is $480,000. But it’s the thought behind it that can help raise awareness about what this area is still undergoing.
Having the players come out here — for children who have never met actual major leaguers from the United States — was also a big deal. You can see in the video footage just how excited they kids were. Remember, if you’ve been reading our coverage all this past week, you know that this is a baseball-crazed nation. All of the kids here knew who Iwakuma was and you can bet they have a pretty good idea who the Mariners are.
“The money’s great and they need that right now,” Wedge said afterwards. “But they need a heck of a lot more help and a lot more awareness about just the devastation. And then you think about the schools and the temporary housing for tens of thousands of people and thousands of kids and it’s just a whole tragedy.”
Mariners pitcher Iwakuma played professionally in the impacted region last year and had been looking forward to coming back here for some time. He says one of the reasons he wanted to become a major leaguer was to have a bigger platform to spread awareness about how people are still dealing with the afttermath of the disaster.
“It’s going to be very helpful to see them, to say hello,” Iwakuma had said of the children, through an interpreter. “It’s been a year after and they still need help.”
Iwakuma brought his young daughter along to the clinic.
“I’m so glad that Kuma went,” Wedge said. “Because obviously, he raised the level (of awareness) a lot. But to have representation from both Oakland and Seatte, I think that was great.
“Just the excitement on their (the kids’) faces,” Wedge said. “That was everything. To just see the parents and coaches and the sense of contentment in them in regards to where their kids are. That’s the way they shoud be. That’s the way they should look all the time. But you know they haven’t had a lot of that.”

Comments | Topics: Hisashi Iwakuma


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