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THE HOT CORNER: Battle just beginning in Tohoku

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THE HOT CORNER: Battle just beginning in Tohoku

by Jim Allen (May 5, 2011)

Sendai's first game this year was good news--when and where it was most needed--but it's only the start.

Weeks ago, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles vowed to play ball in Sendai on April 29. The fulfillment of that promise became a celebration of the spirit of a region beset by natural disaster and uncertain of the future.

The Tohoku region needed a victory, and young right-hander Masahiro Tanaka delivered, halting a late Orix rally to preserve a two-run Eagles' lead and earn the win.

In the eighth inning, with two outs and a man on second, Orix's Takahiro Okada menaced from the batter's box.

The 24-year-old Pacific League home run king is known as T-Okada, but "T-Rex" would suit just as well. With none of the clockwork leg mechanisms other batters use to time pitches, Okada's stance is as simple and purposeful as the barrel of a bat.

Tanaka fell behind in the count 3-1, and reporters afterward asked Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino if he'd considered giving the slugger first base.

"You can't avoid a fight," said Hoshino, who knows a thing or two about brawling in uniform. "You run away and it's going to catch up with you."

Tanaka battled back and enticed Okada to flail at a forkball low and away for strike three. On the mound, "Ma-kun" roared and pumped his fist. Although Tanaka faced more danger in the ninth, he would not be denied.

It wasn't one of baseball's greatest games, but it was one of its greatest moments.

In his postgame speech, Eagles players rep Motohiro Shima said, "When you are fighting for people, it makes you stronger."

With many battles ahead, both the team and the region are going to need whatever strength they can muster.

Ordinary citizens will not throw a single pitch for the Eagles this season or catch a single ball, nor will Eagles players be putting shattered lives back together. But important bonds are being forged.

"We wanted them to come back here and play," evacuee Mariko Shibasaki told The Hot Corner last Thursday at Rokugo Middle School evacuation center in Sendai's hard-hit Wakabayashi Ward.

Friday's game was an important victory for the team and a huge morale boost for the region. But victory for both the ballplayers and those they are fighting for, however, will be a long grind.

The stakes will be higher than normal for the Eagles this season, but baseball has not changed: Three strikes are still an out, and three outs an inning. For many whose lives were thrown into disarray on March 11, however, normal no longer applies.

Yoshie Otomo is a former evacuee, now renting a room with her college-age children. She returned to the shelter last week to attend funerals for those who had died since evacuating.

Each day, Otomo journeys to clean up her home, often on bicycle. Her car was washed away by the tsunami, and used cars are hard to come by.

"At first we couldn't even get inside [the house] because of all the debris," she said. "Even if we clean it up, I think another tsunami might come. That is frightening. I was born in that house, but my feelings are split 50-50.

"They say it's something that happens once every few thousand years, but it's possible that the next one [rare tsunami] could be tomorrow. No one knows."

Hitoshi Azumi, an official at the Wakabayashi Ward Office, said the task ahead is monumental.

"We don't know how many homes were destroyed, how many damaged," he said. "It will be a while before we can find out. The issue now is clearing debris. That is going to take a long time. So many volunteers are helping. Without them, it would take years and years."

Baseball people are fond of saying their season is not a sprint but a marathon. Yet, when the Eagles' marathon ends, so many of those struggling to rebuild lives will still be closer to the start than the finish. A ball club can only help so much, provide a rallying point, a beacon in dark times. But there are times when people need all the help they can get.

"If they can play, perhaps they can win," Shibasaki said. "I think all of us share that hope."

Jim Allen is going on vacation. The Hot Corner will appear next on May 25.

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