Source: South Williamsport, Pa.
Date/Time: Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Taiga Iwamoto doesn’t know what to do with his time.
In his hometown of Hamamatsu City, Japan, he practices baseball almost all day, every day. Practice followed by practice followed by practice.
During his week here in Williamsport—he is Japan’s catcher—time is restricted in-between games, and he has more free time than he’s ever had before.
He doesn’t like the down time.
Baseball heals. Baseball distracts.
Baseball is normal.
“I like to play baseball all the time,” Iwamoto, 12, said through interpreter Kotaro Omori. “It’s very different here. I like baseball because I think about it while I play.”
Iwamoto and his teammates, while in Japan, usually practice three hours a day after school and on the weekends practice from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with only lunch and a few water breaks in between.
Here, they are “limited” to four or five hours a day.
Iwamoto says he tries to pass the time with something normal, like watching baseball on TV. There are a few other options inside the International Grove, such as ping pong or swimming, but he would rather focus on the game.
Following the devastation over the past few months along the Japanese coastline, normalcy is a delicacy.
“I was very surprised when [the tsunami hit],” Iwamoto said. “It was very sad. I watched on TV, and I couldn’t do anything.”
The tsunami he speaks of is the 30-foot swell that followed a registered 9.0 offshore earthquake in March 2011. Over 18,000 people lost their lives as the landscape around Sendai, Japan was flattened.
Fortunately, Hamamatsu City is roughly 300 miles from Sendai, and none of the players or their immediate families were in danger.
Omori, the team’s interpreter, wasn’t so lucky.
His father, as well as some of his other relatives, was living near Sendai.
“For me, it was really hard to understand what was happening… It was like a movie,” he said. “All of the memories [of my father] came back to me. I cried by myself, and realized I had to go help.”
It would be two weeks before the Japanese government allowed Omori or anyone else to enter Sendai, after completely shutting down the city immediately following the tsunami. When Omori was finally allowed, he went to Sendai for three days to help carry food and clothing.
“Everything just went flat,” he said, recalling his first view of the damaged scene. The pictures he took of where his father had been living illustrate the point.
Everything is flat. Everything is gone.
A scene like this greeting a son in search of his father is almost unimaginable. Thankfully, Omori’s dad was one of the lucky ones. He had escaped before the tsunami reached him.
To no surprise, the tsunami severely crippled the ability for many little league baseball teams to practice around the area, so merely the ability to play at all—let alone on the well-manicured fields of South Williamsport—is exciting for manager Akihiro Suzuki.
“I feel good because everything is good for playing baseball,” Suzuki said. “We try to focus on baseball because there are many people who cannot play now. We have pride and respect for them.”
Three of the seven prefectures, the different areas that compete for the Japanese championship, were predominantly affected.
Hamamatsu Minami Little League played Sendai Miyagi Little League in the championship of this year’s Japan regional. Sendai Miyagi, winner from the prefecture closest to the tsunami area, was one of the teams unable to practice, but it could play games.
Many teams in that prefecture were unable to compete at all, in games or in practices, due to loss of life.
Motoe Totsuka, mother of pitcher Shoto Totsuka, who was too shy to speak, knows her son and his teammates understand they are lucky to be able to play.
“They are feeling so sorry that other kids can’t enjoy baseball,” she said. “On the other hand, [those kids] cannot enjoy, but [at least they] are still alive.”
Totsuka realizes the significance and symbolism of representing Japan here in Williamsport.
“We want to give hope and a dream for everybody back home,” she said. “Maybe there is a silver lining in everything, so we just keep going on. We told our kids to play so that they can give hope to everyone back home.”
And they’re doing a good job. Japan has won three games and will play in Thursday’s International Semifinal. Three more wins, and they’ll return home as world champions.
All four—the player, the mother, the interpreter, the coach—couldn’t explain why, but all agreed baseball can be a mechanism for healing.
It’s 4:15 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, and Iwamoto is on the mound pitching. Totsuka’s son is catching while she watches from her seat along the third base line. Omori is sitting a few rows behind her, cheering, as Suzuki is leaning over the top step of the dugout with his hand on his knee, watching his pitcher.
A baseball field tucked behind a hill in the small town of South Williamsport, Pa., is doing its best to help heal a country on the other side of the world.
Baseball is a distraction. Baseball is normal.
Slowly, “normal” is becoming normal again.