If there was one thing former MLB superstar Ken Griffey Jr. was known for during his playing days — well aside from that oh-so sweet swing and his wall-climbing antics in center field at the Kingdome in Seattle — it was his smile.
When “The Kid” flashed the pearly whites, he could light up a room. Now he’s lending his name and famous face to help Japan get back on its feet and bring a little joy to some of those still suffering from the effects of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last March.
On Sunday, the former 13-time MLB All-Star donned a gray training outfit and held a baseball clinic in Kawasaki for a group of children, including some from Fukushima and other affected areas.
He was in a suit the next day, helping promote the MLB’s 2012 Opening Series between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s at Tokyo Dome, which is a part of MLB efforts to aid the nation’s recovery.
“Just to see the smiles on their faces, we know that they’re going to be OK,” said Griffey, now a special consultant for the Mariners. “You have two powerhouses in baseball that are coming here to play exhibition games and Major League Baseball games to put a smile on people’s faces.
“We (the U.S.) went through a similar situation with 9/11, and sports really helps bring back those smiles. I think this trip is going to do that for the people of Japan.”
Thanks in part to past players such as Hideo Nomo and current stars like slugger Hideki Matsui and Mariners superstar Ichiro Suzuki, Major League Baseball enjoys a large following in Japan.
The relationship stretches back over a century, from the Reach All-American Team Tour, when the first group of U.S. professionals competed against Japanese college teams in 1908, to the famed 1934 tour of American League All-Stars managed by Connie Mack and headlined by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and, more recently, the MLB All-Star Tours of the 1990s and also in the 21st century.
MLB has opened its regular season in Japan on three occasions, 2000, 2004 and 2008. “This is our home, and we owe so much to the people here,” said Jim Small, MLB Vice President for Asia. “The timing of this, because we do these every four years, the timing has worked out for us to officially say thank you.”
Both the A’s and Mariners donated money to relief efforts last year, with Matsui, then a member of the A’s, and Ichiro also making separate donations.
“Obviously there are multiple reasons we’re over here,” said Mariners manager Eric Wedge. “One, to play baseball, but maybe even more importantly, to honor the fallen of the tsunami just under a year ago, as well as to raise money, raise awareness and really try to help that community out and this country out in regard to a lot of people getting back on track.”
Bringing in a star of Griffey’s stature was also a part of those efforts.
“He just immediately zeroed in on why it’s important,” Small said. “They’re never going to forget what happened on March 11,” he said of the kids at Griffey’s clinic. “But hopefully, they’ll never forget the opportunity they’re getting now to smile. . .”
Despite all that’s being done from a variety of areas and from various parts of the world, there are no quick fixes.
For many, life will never be the same, while others have not yet experienced a return to normalcy.
“Everything moves forward,” Small said. “But it’s going to take years for things to get back to where they were. So this is a good way to remind people, particularly people in America, that stuff still needs to be done here in Japan.”
Small said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig remains committed to helping the nation heal.
“One of the first calls I got was from him, saying ‘please call Commissioner Kato and see what we can do,’ “Small said, referring to NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato.