On Tuesday, most of the Mariners worked out at the Tokyo Dome. Alex Liddi, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hector Noesi, however, did not. They joined Eric Wedge and a group of three Oakland A's players to travel to Ishinomaki to put on a baseball clinic in an area that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami last March.
On the trip to Ishinomaki Stadium we could still see signs of the destruction. Debris fields and damaged factories no longer being used and houses upon houses that were left as nothing more than shells after the waters raged through them. Hours later I would realize that those houses, which appeared to be randomly spaced on the landscape, were anything but. The empty spaces between those houses and others represented the houses that were no longer there. Miles of homes and businesses almost completely wiped out.
Ishinomaki was just 45 miles from the epicenter of the 9.0 earthquake that struck on the afternoon of March 11, 2011. 34 minutes later a 16-foot tsunami wave hit the port and continued inland where it destroyed tens of thousands of homes and left 5,000 people dead or missing.
For those who survived, life changed drastically. Many are still living in temporary housing with no end in sight. Everyone lost someone and the reminder of that remains in the rubble that is piled high in mountains on the sides of the streets. 130 years worth of rubble and trash accumulated in just one year after the tsunami. There is no escaping the reminders for those who remain in Ishinomaki.
On one end of town sits Ishinomaki Stadium, a building that was mostly unharmed. The stadium was a hub of activity for the town as it housed games for 39 youth teams before six teams were claimed by the tsunami. The remaining 33 teams have made it back to baseball, however, which can provide an hour or two escape for the kids who lost so much. They hardly have anything as most was carried away by the sea and the temporary housing they are now living in is so tiny there really is no room to have things other than necessities. These kids do, however, have a baseball uniform. They have a cap and they have a glove. Today they received a visit from six big league players and two mascots.
"You hear about it," Eric Wedge said of the experience, "to see it is another thing. I think the biggest part of the day was seeing the looks on some of the kids' faces and even some of the adults. For me to raise the level of awareness to where you can keep helping these people and get them back on track. This is the biggest thing for me."
Wedge did not have to be there today. The season opener was the next day, his team had been struggling and the last workout before it all counts was taking place in Tokyo while he was traveling to Sendai. As competitive as he is he knew this was important.
"It's just a horrible tragedy and hopefully this is one of the many points of healing for the whole city," he said of the importance of the visit.
After a brief welcoming ceremony the players and Wedge got down to business, giving the kids a lesson in pitching and hitting. Iwakuma was greeted warmly by the 100 kids who were on the field (hundreds more watched from the stands along with their families). A large group of children followed "Kuma" as he walked to the station that he would be coaching. One child who appeared to be eight or nine briefly took Kuma's hand as he was walking.
Across the field Wedge and Alex Liddi were dividing their group into three. Kate Wedge jumped in and helped out with one of the groups. Eric was loud and bigger than life with the kids while shouting both instruction and encouragement. When they were through he gave them a talk, the same talk he has given the kids in Seattle. He was so demonstrative he hardly needed a translator. The kids were all smiles. Their parents looked relieved to see those smiles.
"Just the excitement on their faces that was everything," Wedge said. "Then you see the parents and coaches and the level of contentment in them in regard to where their kids are. 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."
It certainly was. But the kids and parents of Ishinomaki need more than one day of attention from baseball players. The rebuild effort needs help and Wedge and MLB hope that they can raise awareness by this visit and the two-game series at the Tokyo Dome.
These people still need help.
The destruction. Factories, homes – nothing was immune. The above picture is the saddest of all, an elementary school where many perished after their teachers took them to the top floors thinking they would be safe.
Debris fields are everywhere and the Miyagi Prefecture is finding it impossible to find another who will take some of their landfill. 130 years worth of fill accumulated in just one year after the tsunami.
Many residents were left homeless and they now live in row after row of temporary housing like the one below.
The stadium is surrounded by many of these buildings. Many of the kids you see below have been living in them for over a year now.
Someone is hiding in the back there. And yes, the kids loved the Moose and the opportunity to get close to Major Leaguers.