Mariners tour tsunami-ravaged area of Japan
Club joins A's to bring joy to local Little Leaguers with clinic
ISHINOMAKI, Japan -- They were just kids, happy kids, wanting to play baseball. They looked like typical Little Leaguers, without a care in the world outside of having fun and playing ball. But Eric Wedge knew better.
The Mariners manager had just driven through the tsunami-ravaged Kadonowaki District of Ishinomaki, a city still devastated by the aftermath of the massive 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, its epicenter in the ocean about 45 miles east.
Nearly 5,000 people were killed in the city and 50,000 more were left homeless; many of those are still in temporary housing a year later.
An elementary school can be seen from the main road, partially burned and totally abandoned. Another school in the area had 70 of its 108 students and nine of its 13 children killed as they tried to flee.
Battered and rusted cars are stacked in huge piles, five deep, in a huge lot. Some of those vehicles pounded mercilessly against the elementary schools and other buildings that day, tossed around by the 16-foot-high wave that ripped through the city and its paper factories.
Into that sobering scene, Wedge and Mariners players Alex Liddi, Hector Noesi and Hisashi Iwakuma came on Tuesday, taking part in a clinic along with several A's players at Ishinomaki Municipal Baseball Stadium.
The stadium suffered extensive damage from the earthquake and its subsequent use as a staging area for the Japanese military's relief efforts in the area. But on this day, it was a happy place, with 100 youth players from the area thrilled at the visit by Major League Baseball players who are in Tokyo this week for the Opening Series.
"There's an air of silence when you drive through there," Wedge said. "It is pure devastation. But just the fact we can help with this field and give these kids and parents somewhere to go and play and have a sense of enjoyment from time to time as they're rebuilding everything, hopefully that's the start to something."
Wedge and the players knew they couldn't be caught up in the devastation on this day. They were there to spread cheer, share smiles, coach a little baseball and pass on a $500,000 check from MLB and the MLB Players Association to help refurbish the stadium.
Once the ceremonies were done, Wedge took about 25 of the kids for a hitting clinic and quickly broke them into three groups, set up batting tees, showed them proper technique and then stood back and watched as the young sluggers took their hacks.
"It was neat," Wedge said. "First of all, they had a lot of good swings. They were pretty good. But just the excitement on their faces was everything. Then you see the parents and coaches and the sense of contentment with them in regard to where their kids are. And that's the way they should look all the time, but you know they haven't had a lot of that. That's the real deal."
After each batter got his swings, Wedge exchanged a handshake and encouragement and received a beaming face in return.
"I'm a big eye guy," he said. "It's just seeing their eyes."
Afterward, Wedge told the group they were such good hitters that "you guys don't need us, you should be teaching us." Then he launched into some baseball advice that ended with a reminder to enjoy the game, no matter what.
That certainly wasn't a problem on this day. The kids were boisterous from the time the players arrived, particularly when the Mariner Moose and A's mascot jumped into the fray.
And Iwakuma, a Tokyo native now playing for the Mariners, was a huge hit with the youngsters, who flocked around him and followed wherever he went.
"It's really helpful to see them and say hello a year after," Iwakuma said.
Wedge's only regret was that more time couldn't be spent with the kids. But the Mariners and A's pushed their stay to the limit, with their bus back actually arriving too late to catch their scheduled train connection in Sendai.
Most of the media, as well as Wedge and his wife, Kate, ran through the train station and got on just as the doors were closing for the return trip. But the six Mariners and A's players had to catch a later train. It was a slight inconvenience, but nothing to ruin a day that won't be forgotten by those who saw the devastation firsthand.
Wedge initially wondered if the money couldn't be better spent helping some of the people in temporary housing, but then was told how important baseball is in the city and how valued the stadium was to people in the area.
"If they can just get back to some sense of norm, that's what you're really looking for," he said. "You just want to help the kids, first and foremost. But if we can give them some hope, that's the biggest thing I'd want.
"Hey, they're not alone. There are people helping. And from my understanding, one of the delights of that community was that baseball field. They played there nonstop. And when they lost that on top of everything else, it was tough. So to be able to get that going and put people to work, that's a big deal."