Nippon Professional Baseball got into the spirit of giving this past weekend.
All 12 NPB clubs were in action Saturday and Sunday, playing a pair of afternoon charity games against their regularly scheduled opponents for that weekend.
Fans flocked to stadiums across Japan to see a little baseball and offer funds and support to the people of Tohoku, the victims of a deadly tsunami after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit the region on March 11.
The players wore black ribbons on their jerseys and a moment of silent prayer was held before the games started. Money from ticket sales went to the relief effort, and several players were in front of stadiums soliciting donations from baseball fans.
At Tokyo's Jingu Stadium on Saturday, home of the Central League's Yakult Swallows, pitcher Yoshinori Sato, a native of hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture, was among the players collecting donations.
Prior to the game against Hiroshima, Swallows player rep Masanori Ishikawa and Carp catcher Yoshiyuki Ishihara addressed the crowd. Ishikawa is from Akita Prefecture, another area damaged by the tsunami, while Ishihara hails from Gifu.
"I think this is a really good thing," Carp infielder Kenta Kurihara said prior to the game, when asked about NPB's charity efforts. "It helps, it really helps."
Kurihara's hometown is in Yamagata Prefecture, yet another area ravaged by the tsunami. Kurihara said he was grateful that his friends and family all survived the disaster.
Swallows first baseman Josh Whitesell, an American in his second season in Japan, was also glad that the players could pitch in for the relief effort.
"It was nice to be able to give back, just feel like we're doing as much as we can down here," said Whitesell, who had two hits in Yakult's 3-0 win Saturday. "Sometimes it's out of sight, out of mind, being a little ways away (from Tohoku), but at the same time there are a lot of people who are struggling so it's nice to be able to do something for them."
The games were held on what was originally scheduled to be the second weekend of the regular season. The initial March 25 Opening Day has been pushed back to April 12 after the events of March 11. After initially refusing to change their schedule, the CL bosses eventually fell in line with the Pacific League and the NPB players' association.
With the country still recovering from the tragedy of the tsunami, infrastructure damage caused by the large quake and the ongoing threat of radiation leaks from disabled nuclear reactors in Fukushima, the baseball world was also asked by government officials to help conserve electricity. Many clubs will switch to day games as a result, and games in the energy-sapping Tokyo Dome have been relocated for the time being.
NPB's weekend charity games came on the heels of a charity soccer match between Japan's national team and a J.League All-Star squad held a week ago in Osaka.
"Baseball has to help," said Tomomi Fujita, 36, a Tokyo native and longtime Swallows fan who was taking in Saturday's game at Jingu. "Soccer had a great charity game that was a big success. Baseball is the No. 1 sport in Japan so it's only right that they do help out too.
"I'm a baseball fan and baseball fans want to do something to help out, and this is a great opportunity to do that. (Despite all the hardship) people still need to have some fun and if it also helps charity, great."
The Swallows took a pair from the Carp over the weekend, while the Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons split two games at Nagoya Dome. The Hanshin Tigers and BayStars also split their games in Yokohama.
In the PL, the reigning Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines took two from the Orix Buffaloes at Kyocera Dome, the Nippon-Ham Fighters swept the Rakuten Eagles at Sapporo Dome, and the Softbank Hawks and Seibu Lions split a pair in Ojiyama.
It has been a trying spring in Japan, to say the least. While the devastation of March 11 will be on the players' minds for months -- if not years -- to come, they are also looking forward to starting their season, providing a much-needed diversion to help lift people out of their misery.
"It's been a long spring, even long by the standards over here, so to be able to see it winding down, to see Opening Day in sight -- kind of amp up the energy a little bit -- it feels good and it feels good to be out here with some fans in the stands," said Whitesell.