The Yomiuri Giants and Yakult Swallows are scheduled to play a pair of games in Fukushima at the end of this month and one more in late July. With the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant far from being resolved, some players are leery of making the trip.
"I understand that we want to do what we can for the people (in Tohoku) and lift their spirits, and whatever we can do to help is great," said Swallows first baseman Josh Whitesell, 29. "In the same sense, on a personal safety level, it is recognized as the most devastating nuclear disaster in the history of our world. I just want to make sure that me and my family are safe."
To ease some of those fears, the Swallows will allow the two American players on their roster--Whitesell and pitcher Tony Barnette--to travel to Fukushima on the morning of June 28, the day of the first game, and they will be permitted to leave the area on the evening of June 29, after the second game at Koriyama's Kaiseizan Stadium.
While Whitesell and Barnette will spend one night in Fukushima, the rest of the team will arrive on June 27 and leave on June 30. The Giants have not offered a similar option to any of their players.
Koriyama is less than 60 kilometers from the damaged nuclear reactors on the Fukushima coast. A government-imposed mandatory 20-km no-entry zone around the reactors is currently in effect due to the dangers of radiation contamination brought on when the facility was damaged by the tsunami after the March 11 9.0-magnitude earthquake. The government is also putting out evacuation advisories for designated "hot spots" up to 60 km from the stricken power plant.
Unsafe radiation levels have been detected in the air, water and food in the area near the nuclear plant. The original NPB schedule had the teams playing in Koriyama on June 28 then in Utsunomiya on June 29. The stadium in Utsunomiya, however, was damaged by the quake, and the teams agreed to play two games in Koriyama instead.
In the immediate aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, several foreign NPB players went home, most to the United States. Barnette and Whitesell were not among them, which is not to say that they don't have serious concerns.
"In principle, it's (playing in Fukushima) a great idea because people are suffering up there and if baseball can help cheer those people up or give them something else to think about other than the disaster, I think it's our duty as professional athletes," Barnette said. "We should be giving back to the community any way we can, that's our way of showing that we do care, we're not here to just make money. The fans are the ones that allow us to play this game.
"I don't really know how dangerous or not dangerous it is up there," added Barnette, 27, a right-handed reliever who has found his niche in the bullpen this year. "Right now, I guess I'm just taking the word of the team. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't put anybody in harm's way on purpose."
Barnette's job this year is a late-innings set-up man for closer Lim Chang-yong. It's a job that comes with plenty of built-in pressure, and the former Arizona State University player says the nuclear issue will be far from his mind once the game gets under way.
"When the game starts, everything (outside distractions) is gone," said Barnette, who boasts a 1.59 ERA and has seven holds this season. "When you're down in the bullpen, you completely forget about anything else that's going on. If your mind is somewhere else other than the game, you're probably going to get shelled."