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After quake and tsunami, public split on baseball's return to Japan

TOKYO -- Besuboru is finally back in Japan, after a delay caused by the worst earthquake in the nation's history and an ensuing tsunami that ravaged Northeastern Honshu.

The Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) launches its season on April 12, 15 days later than scheduled, and Nippon leaders are hailing the start of a new season as a return to normalcy, like the cherry blossoms that bloomed last week and the traditional hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties that accompanied it. They claim that the games will lift the nation's spirits much like the return of baseball in New York following the 9/11 attacks inspired Americans to move on and much like the championship season of the Orix Blue Wave -- led by Ichiro Suzuki -- inspired the hometown crowd in Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995.

Motohiro Shima, a player representative of the Rakuten Golden Eagles -- based in Sendai, not far from the quake's epicenter -- declared before a charity benefit game for disaster victims last week: "We will show everyone the power of baseball in lifting the spirits of the Tohoku region."

Added Shawn Novak, a Tokyo-based account executive for MLB Japan, "Getting the season started will give people an escape for two to three hours. It'll give fans something to look forward to, something to cheer for and something to talk about. It will also spur economic activity."

Said Ryozo Kato, the NPB commissioner and titular head of a billion dollar business that employs thousands, "I have a great deal of pride for baseball. I don't think it is a bad thing to play baseball at a time like this."

Not everyone is so sure, however, given the enormous scale of destruction, which literally dwarfs 9/11 and Hanshin. The sudden and terrifying tsunamis that followed the quake caused entire towns, and the families that lived in them, to be swept to sea. There are approximately 30,000 dead or missing and, according to one estimate, nearly 400,000 homeless.

The Japanese Self-Defense Force is still searching for the missing and discovering dead bodies everyday. There are fears of radiation in the food from damaged nuclear reactors. Many of the homes that are still standing are without electricity, heat or running water, as are indeed some evacuation centers. And there are shortages of everything, from drinking water to rice to sanitary napkins. Because of the disabled nuclear plants, there are rolling blackouts in the suburbs, and the power reductions have dimmed the world famous neon signs of Ginza, Shinjuku and other wards. Temperatures are near freezing at night. There are still fears that another huge earthquake will strike.

All in all, about one-third of Japan was crippled by the disaster. Six of the 12 NPB teams play in areas affected by the quake. Rakuten's home park, Kleenex Stadium, is under repair. Some residential houses and condo buildings built on reclaimed land near QVC Stadium, home of the Chiba Lotte Marines, have had to be abandoned due to ground liquefaction.

Says Gen Sueyoshi, who runs the popular website Yakyu Baka, "I do think it is safe to say that people who either live or have connections in the Tohoku regions won't be mentally ready to move forward. People don't have the psychic energy to root for baseball's revival. I don't think it is possible to move forward if you're also worried about being left behind."

There is not enough electric power to enable the normal schedule of night games to proceed, and given the power outages, many people, especially those in the affected areas, won't be able to watch the games on TV, assuming they still have a functioning TV set.

"Watching baseball is not the first thing on anyone's mind in Tokyo either," said Kozo Abe, a sports reporter with the Fuji-Sankei media group. "The Japanese feeling at the moment is that they are not ready to root for the revival of Japanese baseball from the bottom of their heart."

Due to the conditions, the league called for an increased number of day games, the playing of night games under reduced lighting and limiting the length of contests under rules whereby no inning may start after the three-and-a-half-hour mark. The plethora of ties that are sure to result will count in the final standings. The Japan Series will start in late November, a month after it is normally held.

The preeminent Central League was not pleased with many of these changes, including when to start the season. The less popular Pacific League and the Players Association -- many of whose members had had relatives in Tohoku and had been unable to communicate with them -- agreed to move back Opening Day from March 29. But officials of the Central League's Tokyo Yomiuri Giants -- Japan's oldest, winningest and often most popular team -- initially resisted calls by the government to make similar changes.

Giants President Takuo Takihana snootily told reporters, "Are we now going to let the government schedule our games for us?"

The Giants play in the Tokyo Dome, which uses enough electricity, even during day games, to power 6,000 homes. The idea of the vaunted Kyojin turning on the lights, running the air conditioning and playing baseball while residents in the surrounding Kanto region sit at home by candlelight, did not sit well with the general public.

Many subscribers to the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily newspaper, which owns the Giants, called in to complain and cancel their subscriptions. In the face of public condemnation, the Giants finally caved and agreed not only to the late start, but also to begin the season on the road in Western Japan, which was unaffected by the quake. They also agreed to offset some of the Dome's energy use with a private generator and to not use the Dome until May. The other CL clubs quickly fell in line.

What will all this eventually mean? Will the Rakuten Golden Eagles, predicted to be a pennant contender this year, be able to lift and captivate fans like the Orix Blue Wave did in 1995? Comparisons to Orix are somewhat misleading because the '95 earthquake, which caused far fewer deaths (4,000), took place in January, nearly three months before the season was scheduled to start, allowing more time for recovery. (Moreover, the love affair the Tohoku residents have with new Eagles manager, the popular Senichi Hoshino, may fade when they discover that he appeared in several TV commercials in western Japan promoting the use of nuclear energy.)

Said longtime fan of Japanese baseball, Hiroki Allen, a Tokyo-based equities trader, "The 2011 quake was so large and the deaths were so many, this is going to be nothing like 9/11 or '95. Rakuten may be Tohoku's team ... but I don't see them becoming the rallying point for people in these trying times. It's going to take a long, long time for things to get back to normal. And for me, normal is beer and night baseball with all the electricity used for bright lights, neon signs, electronic scoreboards, blaring music and cute girls in miniskirts selling draft beer and octopus snacks. Until night baseball returns in force, I don't think we can say that the baseball season has really started."

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