The kids, half of them wearing Oakland Athletics caps, gathered on a ball field as parents watched from the bleachers – a slice of Americana, except for just about everything.
This coastal city 200 miles northeast of Tokyo was devastated by the natural disaster that struck last March. A tsunami that followed a 9.0 earthquake killed nearly 5,000 residents. More than 50,000 people were left homeless. Entire neighborhoods were washed away. There are barren plots of land where homes once stood. Wrecked vehicles remain stacked atop one another.
Members of the Athletics and the Seattle Mariners walked into this scene Tuesday and made it a little bit better. A little.
“As you can see from the looks on the kids’ faces, they’re smiling, they’re happy,” city official Shoshin Kometani said. “When we see the kids’ faces and they’re happy, it’s a really good thing.”
As part of their season-opening series at the Tokyo Dome, the A’s and the Seattle Mariners participated in a youth baseball clinic at Ishinomaki Municipal Baseball Stadium. It, too, bears scars. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association presented a $500,000 check to city leaders for renovations.
Meanwhile, priceless stuff was happening on the field.
One hundred Little Leaguers, plus numerous teammates and friends, burst into applause and formed a greeting line, high-fiving players as they went by. No one seemed disappointed that Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki, possibly Japan’s greatest export to major league baseball, was not among them. For them, A’s pitchers Tom Milone, Tyson Ross and Evan Scribner were plenty good enough.
And Stomper, the A’s mascot, was best of all. Wherever he wandered, the kids swarmed.
“We can’t be in their shoes,” Milone said. “We can’t feel what they felt a year ago when the tsunami hit. But you can get a feeling for the kind of people they are. They come out here and they’re still smiling even though something devastating like that happens.”
Ross and Scribner looked on as a group played catch in right field. On occasion, one of them would step in and offer instruction.
“They’re so thankful,” Scribner said. “You can tell that they just want to be near you.”
Players and team officials took a bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai, a 90-minute trip followed by an hourlong bus ride to Ishinomaki. Making their way toward the stadium, the travel party witnessed the devastation.
The tsunami came 30 minutes after the earthquake, in the form of a 16-foot-high tidal wave that crashed through the city. Seventy of 108 children at Okawa Elementary School died. For weeks, people waited for word about loved ones who had gone missing.
“It’s incredible how much damage there was,” Ross said. “You see debris everywhere, the large piles of cars off on the side of the road, the little cemeteries that they had right down the hillside. It’s devastating.”
Tuesday brought a little bit of sunshine to this city of 160,000 people.
“It’s a small piece, but it’s part of their recovery,” A’s president Mike Crowley said. “Fortunately, kids are resilient. Just to see the smiles – it’s a pretty good day.”