Kazuo Matsui saw firsthand the damage caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami when he and the rest of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles visited Sendai on Friday.

On Tuesday morning at QVC Marine Field, where he was preparing for his first game in Japan since 2003, the images still hadn’t left him.

“We all knew what kind of situation they were going through and we wanted to go to Sendai as soon as possible,” Matsui said. “It took us a month to actually do it, and it was worse than we imagined. No words can describe what we actually saw.”

The team, along with the rest of Japanese baseball, has dedicated its season to helping those in the disaster areas and giving them something to smile about.

Rakuten players and staff visited relief shelters in the Tohoku area prior to making the trek to Chiba. They visited with survivors and did their best to bring a little joy to those who had lost so much.

“I saw a lot of damaged areas when we went back,” catcher Motohiro Shima said. “We were always cheered on by the people of Tohoku, so we’d like to give back to them.”

Matsui came away impressed with the resolve of those he met while visiting the relief shelters.

“The victims were keeping their heads up and their courage rubbed off on us,” Matsui said. “So we definitely would like to play our best for them.”

Matsui was forced to get a late start on his first year back in Japan when the NPB pushed the start of the season — originally set for March 25 — back to April 12 in the aftermath of the disasters. NPB teams spent the extra time playing practice games and trying to come up with ways to contribute to relief efforts.

On Tuesday, it was business as usual as the Eagles and the rest of the NPB returned to action.

“This past month was a long one,” Matsui said. “But we are actually able to open the season. We appreciate the fact that we can play baseball and would like to have the best results we possibly can. We’d like to show good baseball to the baseball fans of this nation.”

The Eagles put on a good show in the opener, a 6-4 win over the defending Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines.

While the visiting section was far from full the Eagles had their fair share or supporters, including some who made the drive down from Sendai and other northern areas.

“We would like this season to be special and in the end give the people of Tohoku some good news.”

The gravity of the situation surrounding the game hit Shima after everything was over.

“During the game I don’t have any time for that,” Shima said. “But after the game, I was incredibly happy. After the game with all the build up it was really special.”

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