Two teams of young ballplayers whose lives were turned upside down by the March 11 tsunami are going to get a much needed respite on the ball field next weekend.
One elementary school team and one middle school team from Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, will play games in Tokyo next Saturday on a road trip engineered by Major League Baseball.
The kids will also be guests at Tokyo Dome for a game between the Yomiuri Giants and their hometown team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
"These kids on the [Yuriage] elementary and middle school teams lost everything,"said Jim Small, MLB's vice president for Asia.
Small said he and his staff were informed of the teams' plight by UNICEF, to which MLB, its players and clubs had combined to donate 5 million dollars in the wake of the disaster.
"UNICEF is seeing that kids who are in evacuation centers and going to new schools have supplies," he said. "We also gave some recreation supplies so they have sports equipment."
Small's staff converged on an evacuation center on April 21 and distributed bats, balls and caps to kids whose school building had miraculously survived in a neighborhood obliterated by the tsunami.
"Everybody lost somebody," Small said. "Two members of the middle school team died.
"We gave them caps from different MLB teams. One of the kids knew every team and shouted it out--I offered him a job. After seeing these happy shining faces, it hit home. They lost their homes, their school, their families. They need to get away from that, even if it is just for a weekend. At least we could give them back baseball."
That was the genesis of a weekend that will see the elementary school kids take on an Azabu little league squad and the middle school play the junior varsity team from the American School in Japan. The ASIJ will also provide transportation for the kids and host a cookout.
The trip will include an evening at the ballpark.
"Jim called and wanted to invite the kids. He asked, 'How much would it cost to come to the Dome?'" said Tetsu Inoue of the Yomiuri Shimbun's Sports Promotion Department.
"We said, 'Forget about the money.'"
The kids will be on the field during batting practice, although all the details have yet to be worked out.
"The Giants have been great about this, jumped right in with the  free tickets," Small said.
It's no departure for the Giants, who have been bringing evacuees and volunteers to games all spring and will do so for the remainder of the season.
"We've been inviting these people to games and let them run onto the field and take positions alongside the players," said Kenji Fujimoto of the Giants' department of fan services.
It's just a small step toward the greater goal of giving children affected by the disaster one more lifeline.
Small wants to reach out to all the teams he can, but finding them is an issue simply because local governments and agencies are so busy.
"It's too costly to do this with every team [in their situation] but we can get them equipment," Small said. "The clock is ticking, however. We want to get it to them now, and not in November.
"We want to try and take baseball back to where it was on March 10, just try to set the clock back."