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Far from quake-stricken homeland, Japanese players face grief, fear


MARYVALE, Ariz. -- There's a certain weariness that follows the adrenaline and stress of an emergency, and that fatigue was evident in the eyes of Brewers reliever Takashi Saito as he sat in front of his locker Sunday afternoon and addressed the English-speaking media. He had just pitched his first inning since an 8.9-Richter Scale earthquake and an ensuing tsunami rocked Japan's coast near Sendai, the city of one million people where he grew up.

He spoke in Japanese, but even before his interpreter gave English translation to those words, his eyes told the story: Relief had replaced fear.

Saito knew his wife and three daughters were safe -- they live in Yokohama, far from most of the destruction -- but his parents, brothers and other relatives were in Sendai. He learned that almost everyone was accounted for as of Saturday evening, which allowed him the peace of mind to pitch.

"It's hard because I understand what they're going through right now," Saito said, as translated by Kosuke Inaji, "but they keep telling me, don't worry about them and focus on playing. That gives me some reassurance."

The past few days have been a grave reminder of the sacrifice he and all of the 15 Japanese players in big league camp make to play in the majors, traveling far from their homeland and often their families. The disturbing television images of the damage abroad have made it a trying few days for everyone in baseball with ties to Japan -- players, scouts, executives and writers -- as many have struggled to carry on in the aftermath of the worst earthquake in the nation's history. Combined with the tsunami and the uncertain situation in a couple nuclear reactors, this catastrophe is, said Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the greatest crisis to hit Japan since World War II.

Compounding matters has been difficulty in reaching family and friends back in troubled areas. Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox and Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners were among those who initially struggled to contact their families. Yankees minor league pitcher Kei Igawa returned to his hometown of Oarai with the club's permission. The Brewers granted Saito a leave of absence and the opportunity to fly back to Japan, but he was able to reach family members by phone and rejoined the club after missing two days.

On clubhouse televisions across baseball, CNN's coverage of the devastation replaced MLB Network, with clusters of players and writers standing by each set for an update.

Earlier on Sunday in Tempe, Angels pitcher Hisanori Takahasi recounted his own harrowing tale of the earthquake. He was video chatting with his wife, Yeyol, back in Tokyo, when the image on Skype started shaking violently, as he unwittingly witnessed the earthquake live.

"The videos and the pictures were horrible," Takahashi said through his interpreter, Yoichi Terada. "It is sad I cannot do anything right now in my country."

At least he had visual affirmation that his wife and their two children were safe, though they remained scared of the series of aftershocks. In the meantime, Takahashi has kept a close eye on whatever news he can find from Japan and remains shocked by the footage he sees.

"There are no words," he said. "It is an unreal thing, like a movie or something."

No franchise has closer ties to Japan than the Seattle Mariners, whose majority owner is Nintendo of America, a subsidiary of the Japan-based video-game company. In addition to those business associates in Japan, the club currently has Ichiro on its active roster and earlier this decade employed All-Star closer Kazuhiro Sasaki and starting catcher Kenji Johjima, as well as several front-office personnel from Japan and a scout currently based in Tokyo.

"We were very fortunate we didn't lose anyone," Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said by telephone Monday. "It's a horrific tragedy. You can imagine what it would be like to be unable to contact your family after something like this has happened. Everybody's safe, though."

Lincoln, formerly the chairman of Nintendo of America, said he used to travel to Japan at least three of four times per year and still has many friends there. On the day of the earthquake, he emailed a business friend at Nintendo's world headquarters in Kyoto, Japan -- in the southern third of the island nation -- and received a prompt reply that everyone was okay and that they didn't even feel the quake's tremors.

Mindful of how many Japanese are either Mariners fans or specifically Ichiro fans on NHK, Lincoln pledged that the club will respond to the tragedy in some fashion but hadn't settled on a specific plan yet.

"We want to think exactly what we want to do and what is appropriate," Lincoln said.

A couple teams, including the Dodgers and the Red Sox, have already announced fundraising efforts. In Fort Myers, Fla., Boston's Matsuzaka, reliever Hideki Okajima and minor leaguers Junichi Tazawa and Itsuki Shoda all made personal donations to the cause and greeted fansbefore Monday's home game against the Yankees to accept gifts from fans; they'll do the same before Thursday's home game against the Mets on St. Patrick's Day.

For now, it seems that the affected players are happy to retreat into the routine of baseball. It likely provides a sense of normalcy. Indeed, Saito noted in his postgame remarks on Sunday that it was not a difficult decision to pitch in the game and that, after pitching the game's first inning in order to get his work in quickly, he was looking forward to returning to the game's later innings.

"No, it was not," Saito said of the decision. "All my teammates and the Brewers staff have been very supportive of me, which made it a lot easier. From now on I'd like to get into my regular routine of not pitching in the first inning."

Before making his slow walk out to the Maryvale Baseball Park mound, Saito first asked all assembled to observe a moment of silence in honor of a high school teammate and his family who were still missing.

"I still haven't given up hope yet," Saito said.