After his family recovered the bodies of his grandparents and moved into the cramped prefabricated home where they all sleep in the same room, Toshiki Onodera, 17, decided that the old goals should still matter.
So Onodera started talking, once again, about baseball. He practiced normalcy, as if hoping to trick it to return. He posted his high school team’s spring practice schedule on the living room wall and said, “I can’t be sad for the rest of my life.”
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.”
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.
At 2:46 p.m., while the team worked on pickoff drills, the ground shook. Minutes later, the quiet town below became all water and noise — houses breaking into rubble, iron twisting, cars compressing, people screaming. Players watched from the edge of the field. And then a few decided not to watch any longer: Those 74 steps below, they saw employees from the Mercy Garden Elderly Home struggling to carry residents to higher ground. Several, Onodera included, sprinted down the steps to help. They formed a fireman’s line, passing immobile patients up the steps toward the high school. The players, along with the home’s staff members, saved 28 of the 68 residents before floodwaters rose too high.
But eight of those 28 died during that first night in the cold.
Two days after the disaster, when Onodera finally found his father, the pair walked together for 18 miles to an evacuation shelter, where they reunited with Onodera’s mother and sister. During the walk, Onodera told his dad, “I saw old people being swept away. They were saying, ‘Help,’ and I couldn’t do anything.”
In the weeks that followed, Onodera — for the first time he could remember — wanted nothing to do with baseball. His uniform and his mitt were now among the only things he owned, and yet he no longer considered himself a second baseman.
He mourned his grandparents; they had lived at home with the family, and Onodera considered them his top baseball fans. His grandfather’s body was found March 17. His grandmother’s body was found March 26. Twelve days later, Onodera ended up in the hospital, with a case of mumps that he contracted in the evacuation center.
Then, on April 15, with most families still living in shelters, Dodo contacted the surviving parents of his players and told them that he still wanted to play a baseball season. “I bowed and said, ‘Please support us,’ ” Dodo later recalled.
On April 26, the team practiced for the first time since the disaster.
In those early weeks, the players talked less, cheered less and moved more slowly than they used to. Five players never rejoined the team, including one who had lost his father. Dodo took it easy on those who remained. But he told his players to act as they did before, betting that the old routines could reawaken the old feelings.
Shizugawa did not play a regular season; it was just a string of exhibition games and practices — all preparation for the Miyagi prefecture tournament that begins this weekend, with a trip to Koshien on the line, six consecutive victories away.
But during the past two months, coaches and players have seen a transformation: The players hustle because they think they should, and chatter during practice because they want to. During a recent exhibition game, after their center fielder threw out a runner at home, a half-dozen players joined in an impromptu circle and started dancing.
“We were playing baseball and we were all together when the tsunami happened,” Onodera said. “We were saved. Now I think baseball is helping to save us again.”
On Tuesday, after school let out, Shizugawa’s 10 seniors ran four miles to a borrowed field; nobody was around to give them a ride. It was almost 90 degrees. Onodera’s face turned flush, and he chugged down straight country roads with rice fields on both sides. During practice, he led the team during stretching and throwing drills, barking commands. They stayed on the field until sundown.
“Our family, we lost everything,” Onodera’s father said. “We lost three cars. Two fishing boats. All the machinery to cultivate rice. Assets, they mean nothing now. But for my son, baseball still matters. Joy is more important than materials.”
Special correspondents Sachiko Iwata and Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.