Japanese school baseball team a symbol of recovery

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By JIM ARMSTRONG, Associated Press

IZUNOKUNI, Japan (AP) — One year after their lives were torn apart by the devastating earthquake and tsunami, players from Ishinomaki Technical High School are ready to compete on one of the biggest stages in Japanese baseball.

When the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit on March 11, 2011, manager Yoshitsugu Matsumoto was leading his team through practice on the school's baseball field. Earthquakes are all too common in Japan, but like everyone who experienced that terrible day, Matsumoto knew this one was different.

Within minutes, the school was transformed into an evacuation center, and it wasn't long before the same field the team was practicing on was under 4½ feet of water. The players and Matsumoto would spend the next three days in the school before moving to a safer evacuation facility.

Over the next several days, 70 percent of Matsumoto's players would learn they had lost family members or homes in the devastation.

On Sunday, to mark the first anniversary of the disaster, the team was to fly to Osaka to prepare for the March 21-April 1 spring invitational high school baseball tournament, where they will be a symbol of resilience and recovery to the people of Ishinomaki and the prefecture of Miyagi.

Ishinomaki, a city of 150,000 on Japan's northeast coast, was one of the hardest hit towns in the earthquake and tsunami that left just more than 19,000 people dead. About 46 percent of the city was inundated by several tsunamis up to 32 feet high.

After so much suffering, the people of Ishinomaki will draw hope for the future and have reason to cheer when their team takes the field.

"Baseball is very popular in Ishinomaki, so I'm sure our games will provide some relief to the people back home," Matsumoto said. "My players weren't the only ones facing difficult times."

As traumatic as the events of March 11 were on his team, Matsumoto knew the best thing for his players would be to get back to baseball as soon as possible.

"When you are young like they are, you need something to throw yourself into," Matsumoto said. "It was very tough on them, but baseball has helped them to deal with their losses. Sports can be very important in this way."

Within eight weeks of the disaster, the team was back practicing on the same field that was flooded.

The Japan High School Baseball Federation each year selects for the tournament three teams that have served as a model. With a second-place finish in autumn state qualifying tournaments and after all this school had been through, Ishinomaki was an obvious choice.

"This will be the first time in 46 years for a team from Ishinomaki to take part in the tournament," Matsumoto said. "I hope our games can lift the spirits of the people back home."

The spring and summer high school baseball tournaments enjoy tremendous popularity in Japan. All the games are telecast live on national broadcaster NHK and fans gather around TVs when their local team takes the field at Koshien Stadium, home of the Hanshin Tigers of Japanese professional baseball.

"Going to Koshien is about the biggest honor a school can bring to its town," said author Robert Whiting, who has written several books on Japanese baseball. "There are 4,000 high school teams in Japan, so it's a huge honor to go. It's up there with sending an astronaut into space."

The star players of the championship team achieve a degree of celebrity status. Many — like major league stars Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish — have gone on to play in the professional leagues.

"Players who have played in Koshien are coveted by companies because of the training and effort they've put in to make it all the way to Koshien. It shows they've got character and fighting spirit," Whiting said.

Matsumoto is cautious when asked how his players will react to playing in such a big tournament.

"We won't know until we get there," Matsumoto said. "But the players are in good spirits and we're looking forward to the competition."

To better prepare for Koshien, the team was invited to train in the warmer weather of Shizuoka prefecture, south of Tokyo, at Nirayama High School in Izunokuni.

The offer was another example of "kizuna," a notion of the inseparable bond between people that has flourished in Japan since the earthquake and tsunami.

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