Onodera is a high school senior from Minamisanriku, an obliterated town where baseball holds no importance whatsoever, given what has been lost. Or at least that’s one way of looking at it. The longer Onodera thought about his own life, post-disaster, the more he also saw truth in the inverse: Perhaps baseball was more important than ever, given that it was the one thing he still had.
“No matter the circumstances,” Manager Tomoyuki Dodo told the team many times, “the goal doesn’t change.”
Before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, at least, Minamisanriku’s Shizugawa High School baseball team had a clear goal: making it to Japan’s version of March Madness — a nationwide single-elimination tournament that, for a few weeks every summer, becomes the focus of this baseball-loving country.
Every year, one team from each prefecture participates, winning a regional tournament just to get to the final games at Koshien Stadium. Shizugawa has never made it. Entering his senior year, Onodera wanted to change that so badly, he’d even grown to appreciate the seven-hour practices that Dodo considered mandatory.
But the earthquake and tsunami forced Onodera and other teenagers in Japan’s disaster zone to weigh uncomfortable new questions about the extent to which their lives, and their ambitions, must change. Among Shizugawa’s 152-student senior class, 12 have already left the region to start new lives elsewhere. The other 140 attend school 15 miles away, because their usual building doesn’t yet have running water. Ten of those students have changed their minds about going to college, preferring to hunt for jobs because their families need money.
Almost all of the students, Shizugawa officials said, want to stay close to home, feeling an obligation.
But almost none of them, officials said, think they can get a job in Minamisanriku anytime soon. Onodera wants to go to nursing school in Sendai, the closest nearby city, when he graduates in March 2012.
“Toshiki will have to leave Minamisanriku,” said Onodera’s father, Hirokazu. “Minamisanriku is not set up as a town anymore.”
In routine, finding a lifeline
For administrators and coaches at Shizugawa, conducting a baseball season in the wake of the mega-disaster only felt reasonable because baseball had been a part of the disaster from the beginning. For one thing, baseball practice helped save the players’ lives. For another, a baseball drill helped save the lives of others.
March 11 was a Friday, but Shizugawa High School did not hold classes that day. Nonetheless, Dodo ordered his team to show up for practice at 9 a.m. Their field was perched on a hillside overlooking the town, with 74 steps connecting the field to lower ground; the players knew the number well because during practice Dodo would make them climb the stairs until their lungs screamed.