Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baseball Helps Japanese Town Heal

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan—As the evening light drained from the sky, Rinnosuke Yoshida hurled one last pitch across the dusty practice field—a refuge amid the piles of debris left behind by the tsunami in March.


A 15-year-old local baseball star who aspires to play in college and one day turn pro, Rinnosuke spends his free time training—lifting weights and trying to perfect his swing—and grappling with the biggest decision of his life so far: to stay here or move to a bigger city inland to play high school baseball.

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A Yonesaki Middle School player was at bat during a June 18 game against Setamai Middle School.

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It is a choice he will have to make without the guidance of the person whose counsel he wants the most.

"My dad always used to give me advice on baseball and what to do next. I don't have that anymore," he said. "I think that's what I miss the most."

Rinnosuke's father, Toshiyuki Yoshida, was dragged off by the swirling black waters that ravaged this coastal community on March 11. His body still hasn't been found. Rinnosuke and his family now are contemplating a future far different from the one they once imagined.

Almost 20,000 people across Japan were lost within minutes to the massive earthquake and tsunami it spawned. In Rikuzentakata, nearly 2,000 of this city's 23,000 residents were torn away by the rampaging ocean, including more than 40 volunteer firefighters and a host of city workers, politicians and business leaders.

The waves took people like Mr. Yoshida, a civic-minded Rikuzentakata native who worked at a small-business association and was actively involved in the community. He belonged to the local fire brigade. And he was passionate about baseball, the American sport transplanted to Japan in the late 1800s. For 14 years, he coached the team at the middle school he had attended as a boy and where his younger son is still a student.

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Seven months after the disaster, survivors are still struggling to mend the holes ripped in Rikuzentakata's social fabric by so many deaths. They are searching for replacements to run the city's companies, operate its government, save its cultural institutions and nurture its sports teams.

In many ways, the human rebuilding is a tougher challenge than the physical reconstruction of Rikuzentakata and other cities like it on Japan's northeast coast.

"With enough money, infrastructure can be replaced. For people, of course, it's not that easy," said Futoshi Toba, Rikuzentakata's mayor, whose wife, Kumi, is among the dead. "The community needs to work together so the thoughts and ideas of the people who passed away can be carried on."

As U.S. baseball fans focus on next week's World Series, the sport is playing a critical role in sustaining the family Mr. Yoshida left behind in Japan: his wife, 41-year-old Kazue, and two sons Rinnosuke and Shinnosuke,16.

Both boys are obsessed with baseball. Rinnosuke, a pitcher at Yonesaki Middle School, played this fall on a regional all-star team. Shinnosuke is a catcher and vice captain at Takata High School.

Yuta Niinuma, one of Mr. Yoshida's former protégés and a pitcher, is an assistant coach at the middle school and has become a mentor to the boys, especially Rinnosuke. He works with them in between his shifts at a local poultry processing plant.

"It's a way to pay back what his father taught me," said Mr. Niinuma.

High school baseball is a big deal in Japan. It commands the sort of attention and fan loyalty that high school football does in Texas and some other parts of the U.S. Glossy magazines in Japan are devoted to following school-boy ball players. The best are recruited straight to the major leagues.

The sport has long been important in Rikuzentakata. One of the city's proudest moments was when Takata High went all the way to the national championship tournament outside Osaka in the summer of 1988—Ms. Yoshida's senior year. Hundreds of fans turn up for the team's big games.

"I've been playing baseball since before I can remember," said Shinnosuke. His father, who played outfield in high school and bragged about his base-stealing prowess, dressed his sons up in baseball uniforms for photos when they were still toddlers.

Shinnosuke joined his elementary school team when he was 9 and Rinnosuke became determined to play like his big brother. His parents bought Rinnosuke his first glove for his 7th birthday.

Mr. Yoshida, who taught his boys the basics of batting and fielding in the backyard, was a stickler for form. When Rinnosuke developed a habit of throwing side arm, his father had him sit straight-backed in a chair for hours, gripping a baseball in his right hand and lifting his arm, elbow first, so that he could learn the proper motion and avoid injury later.

When they weren't practicing with the team, father and son would head over to the middle school diamond. Mr. Yoshida would squat behind home plate, catching pitch after pitch and giving his son pointers. Rinnosuke would often throw 90 pitches in a session.

"When I would get tense, he would tell me to relax more," Rinnosuke said.

As an assistant coach, Mr. Yoshida was known for his keen sense of humor and motivational comments. The head coach, Seiji Yoshida (no relation), said Mr. Yoshida played "good cop" to his "bad cop."

When the tsunami hit that Friday afternoon, Mr. Yoshida, 43 years old at the time, was downtown for work and raced to help people climb to safety on the roof of City Hall. Witnesses later said that after guiding some older residents up the stairs, he headed back down to rescue stragglers. He hasn't been seen since.

In the chaos after the disaster, Mrs. Yoshida, a city employee, was drafted for emergency relief work. The boys waited for their father to come home, or report for duty at the fire station. When he didn't turn up after three days, they went with their grandfather to search for him.

They made the rounds of all the evacuation centers but Mr. Yoshida's name was nowhere to be found. With dread, the three went to the gymnasium at Rinnosuke's school, which had been turned into a makeshift morgue.

The boys were told to wait outside. Mr. Yoshida's father went in alone to look at the mud-covered corpses laid out on the floor. His son wasn't among them.

"Because my dad is the kind of person he is, when he didn't come home, I was already guessing what happened," said Shinnosuke. "My grandparents took it really hard."

The family didn't hold a funeral. As the months went by, they tried to return to the rhythms of daily life.

At first, the boys said, it wasn't clear whether they would play baseball again. Their town lay in ruins and their father was gone.

Lying in bed at night after the disaster, Rinnosuke would sometimes sob, asking his grandparents who would teach him baseball now.

Word of his quandary made it to Mr. Niinuma, who was coaching at the middle school. "When I heard that, I thought that was something I could do. I could teach him about pitching," Mr. Niinuma said.

Mr. Yoshida started coaching at Yonesaki Middle School when Mr. Niinuma, now 28, was a student and a promising pitcher there. "He used to tell me not to over-think everything, every play, every move, but to listen to my gut," Mr. Niinuma said.

School eventually started again in May, and with it, baseball practice.

Yonesaki Middle School's baseball field had become home to temporary housing for residents displaced in the tsunami. So the baseball team scrounged for places to play. It took buses to diamonds in neighboring towns. Yonesaki's kids spent time preparing for a regional summer tournament on a playing field surrounded by debris. A beached fishing boat sat among smashed concrete and tangled steel beyond the outfield.

Mr. Niinuma began spending more time with Rinnosuke after practice. They played catch and hung out. To help Rinnosuke get more power into his pitches, Mr. Niinuma had him change his motion to focus his mind on the transfer of weight from his back leg to his front as he throws the ball. Now, Rinnosuke bends his back knee and exaggerates his windup before hurling the ball.

Sometimes, Mr. Niinuma, who lives with his wife nearby, would spend the night at the Yoshidas' house. He was wary of broaching the subject of Mr. Yoshida's death directly with Rinnosuke.

"I felt that if I consoled him, it would make things worse," he said in May. "I don't want to overprotect him, to keep asking him how he's doing."

At the first game of the middle school summer tournament—in his first at bat—Rinnosuke smacked a double deep into center field, driving in a run.

But when his team took the field, and Rinnosuke, the starting pitcher, made his way to the mound, jitters got the best of him. He walked the first batter. He gave up two hits. Then he threw a wild pitch. By the end of the inning, Yonesaki's early lead was gone and the score was tied 3-3.

For the next few innings, control see-sawed between Yonesaki and the team from Setamai Middle School in the neighboring town of Sumita.

"During the tough moments, I kept thinking about my dad. I felt like he was there with me," Rinnosuke said.

Then, in the bottom of the sixth, things fell apart. With one out and the bases loaded, Rinnosuke threw a pitch. The batter hit a triple to right field. Three runs scored. The game ended 9-5.

Outside the stadium afterward, Rinnosuke broke down. One hand against the concrete wall, the other holding a towel to his face, he cried inconsolably for 30 minutes.

"If I'd been able to hold them, we could have won," Rinnosuke said later. "I was really sad that I couldn't pay back all the people who supported me after the disaster. And I cried for my dad."

In the months that followed, Mr. Niinuma kept working with Rinnosuke to help rebuild his confidence.

As Mr. Niinuma's presence in Rinnosuke's life has grown, so has his influence. After Mr. Niinuma graduated from Yonesaki Middle School in the late 1990s, he left Rikuzentakata for a high school in the bigger inland city of Ichinoseki to improve his baseball prospects.

Mr. Niinuma ended up pitching at Fuji University, about 90 minutes from Rikuzentakata. Mr. Yoshida and his young family used to go and watch his games.

As the school year wore on, Rinnosuke began to seek Mr. Niinuma's advice on the strengths and weaknesses of various high school baseball teams. Going to a school with a better baseball program would mean better coaches and more advanced training. But it would also mean more competition for playing time. It would also involve moving away from home—and potentially leaving his mother all alone, since Shinnosuke will soon be going to college.

In late August, over bowls of steaming ramen noodles at one of the few local restaurants back in operation, Mr. Niinuma discussed an option with Rinnosuke: Ichinoseki Gakuin High School, a private school in the same city where Mr. Niinuma had studied, about two hours away. The team went to the national championships last year.

"I told him if he goes, he will improve as a player," said Mr. Niinuma. "He will also make connections and meet new people. It's good for many reasons."

While Rinnosuke mulled his decision, the family continued to struggle with their loss. Mrs. Yoshida couldn't bring herself to file the papers to have Mr. Yoshida declared dead. Shinnosuke largely kept his feelings to himself. The family said that they seldom talked about Mr. Yoshida's death directly.

Baseball helped them cope. Shinnosuke tasted success when Takata High School won four games to take second place in the autumn regionals and earn a berth in the prefectural championship tournament, where they lost in the second round.

Shinnosuke turned into an important leader for the team, working closely with its pitchers and keeping the players on the bench motivated.

"He's somebody I can trust," said Akishi Sasaki, the Takata High manager. "He can see the game as a whole. He's very smart. The team can't do without him."

Shinnosuke said he is determined to stick with baseball and his studies. After he graduates from Takata High, he wants to go to the prefectural capital, Morioka, for university and eventually settle back in Rikuzentakata.

Mrs. Yoshida said that she appreciates all the support that Mr. Niinuma has given to her sons. And if Rinnosuke decides on Ichinoseki, she will do her best to send him there.

But if he doesn't win a scholarship, the tuition will be expensive. And she worries how he will cope with living on his own, far from home.

"I think if his dad were still here, I wouldn't be so worried about his going away," said Mrs. Yoshida. "In my heart, I hope he decides to stay home and go to high school with his brother."

Rinnosuke still isn't sure what to do. He said his heart—and his mind —are divided, 50-50.

On the one hand, going to Ichinoseki, with its more competitive program and tougher practice regimen, would likely help him improve faster as a player, and give him exposure to the world beyond Rikuzentakata. On the other, he said, he doesn't want to turn his back on his mother, his hometown and its team.

"If Takata High can win and bring attention to the city, we can repay all the people who have supported us," Rinnosuke said. "Baseball could help bring things back to the community."

—Hitoshi Koreeda contributed to this article.

Write to Gordon Fairclough at

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