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THE HOT CORNER: Debate ends as baseball begins

by Jim Allen (Apr 14, 2011)

Opening Day was about unity, courage and looking forward to a season of baseball and rebuilding. Gone was the rancor over when the season should start.

Combine the chaotic aftermath of the natural disaster, an ongoing nuclear threat and an energy shortage with the opinions of millions of fans, 903 players, 12 teams, and there is bound to be disagreement about how to approach the season.

"It couldn't be helped that the season was delayed. I'm glad it's starting, though," said Eagles fan Arare Fujimaki, who took a night bus from Sendai to cheer on Tohoku Rakuten at Tuesday's opener in Chiba.

After the March quake, many players had wanted the start of the season pushed back. Saitama Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima had hoped a delay would give players an opportunity to personally pitch in.

"I want to help, distribute food, deliver supplies, volunteer, go up there," he told The Hot Corner on Saturday. "Collecting donations is good, but even if it's for a short time, I want to go up [to the Tohoku region] and physically help."

Chiba Lotte Marines catcher Tomoya Satozaki, however, said a long delay was not necessarily best.

"Sooner or later, things have to get started again, otherwise there's no recovery," Satozaki said Monday. "But I think most of the sentiment was against starting the season quickly. In Japan, whatever position the majority takes is often considered to be correct, regardless of what that position is."

When Opening Day came 18 days late, it was fitting that the Pacific League's first game was between the two teams whose stadiums and fans were most affected by the disaster.

Just before moving to Chiba for the opener, the Eagles visited Sendai for the first time since the earthquake.

Managers typically frown on distractions during the busy buildup to Opening Day, but Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino said the Tohoku trip was invaluable.

"We had been thinking of nothing but Tohoku since the earthquake," he said. "Night and day, we studied the news. We were all on edge.

"As a group, we made the choice to go up there. And it made a world of difference to us. The players have been able to calm down. You can see it in they way they are moving.

"For me personally, I am very glad we went."

Not only were players and staff members able to see how their homes had fared in the quake, they also got a sense of the people's spirit.

"We hadn't been able to see what was going on apart from what was in the news and on TV," Eagles shortstop Kazuo Matsui said Tuesday. "Since it happened, we spoke about getting back to Sendai at the earliest possible time. Unfortunately, it took some time to get up there.

"What we saw was unimaginable. There are no words for it. At an evacuation shelter, even in those circumstances I saw all these lively faces. I had been struggling to find words to cheer them up a little, but in fact those people energized me."

The Marines got a similar charge on Saturday in Chiba Prefecture's two hardest-hit cities. One group visited tsunami-struck Asahi, on the Pacific Coast, while others went to nearby Urayasu, where liquefaction seriously damaged the city's water system. Pitcher Yoshihisa Naruse was among those in Urayasu.

Naruse, who started Tuesday's opener, talked about his visit to a middle school.

"I was playing catch with some kids and their faces just lit up. It was a very different experience," he said. "When they encouraged me, told me to do my best, I couldn't remember feeling happier."

Motohiro Shima, whose homer powered the Eagles' 6-4 victory on Tuesday, said he wasn't thinking about the plight of those in the disaster areas during the game.

"You can't afford to do that," he said. "But I do feel we are fighting this out together, that the feelings of the people in Tohoku made this win possible. I never felt a victory was bigger than this one."

It was just one game out of 144, but it was a good start.

Matsui put it well: "Hopefully, by becoming one with the people, all the 12 teams can help put us on the right path."


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