It’s likely many who were in Japan on March 11, 2011, can recall exactly where they were when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.
Japan’s pro baseball players were in the midst of spring training, and pitcher Darrell Rasner was gearing up for his third season with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. On that particular day, while the Eagles played in Hyogo Prefecture, Rasner was on a shinkansen with Masahiro Tanaka and a few other pitchers who were traveling to Rakuten’s next stop ahead of the rest of the team.
They were somewhere south of Nagoya when the quake hit.
“I realized something was serious when that train came to a stop like it did,” Rasner told The Japan Times from his home in Nevada. “Then, looking out the window and seeing, even down that far south, how big it was. It was crazy, just everything was moving.”
Thursday marks 10 years since that magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami battered the Tohoku region and triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. A release by the National Police Agency dated Dec. 10, 2020, listed the number of deaths at 15,899 and the number of missing as 2,527. The quake, which struck at 2:46 p.m., and tsunami caused massive damage across northeastern Japan.
As citizens of the region began to pick up the pieces in the aftermath, Rasner and the Eagles had to balance their own emotions with the demands of trying to play a baseball season.
“That type of event really put baseball into perspective at the time,” Rasner said. “When other human beings were suffering and going through what they were going through, it really put a game into perspective.
“The game in turn, though, took on a different meaning for us, because we wanted to provide that for the fans of Sendai. So we used that and turned it into wanting to win and provide the city something to root for and to look forward to and be a part of. Initially it was really, really hard to get back on the field, because all these lives were lost and such destruction to such a beautiful place. Trying to get back into the emotional mind set to play a game was tough.”
While Rasner and the players on the train didn’t know the full extent of what had happened, they eventually learned how serious things were and that the Tohoku region was at the epicenter.
“I remember just as a dad, just feeling for the people who were up in our hometown,” Rasner said. “I love the people of Sendai. I instantly went to that. I put myself in their shoes. Are they with their loved ones? Are they with their kids? Are they with their parents? I can’t imagine being there and having to go through that.”
Being based in the Tohoku region — the team plays in Sendai — meant many Eagles players, coaches and staff members had family and friends in the area.
“I remember my translator, he couldn’t get a hold of his family,” Rasner said. “Of course, everyone was down. It was just quiet. There was nothing, there was no life on our team anymore. The team took that on and it was tough. It was eerily quiet everywhere we went. Everyone was heartbroken.”
Rasner was unable to phone his own family in the U.S. initially, but was eventually able to trade emails with his parents. His father was a former environmental engineer with connections in the nuclear industry, and began to periodically pass on what relevant information he could about the situation at the nuclear plant in Fukushima.
At the behest of his family, Rasner — like other foreign players — returned to his home country for a few days before coming back to Japan to start the season.
NPB players responded to the disasters by raising money at games to help aid relief efforts. The start of the season was also pushed back. To help with energy conservation, NPB ruled that once a game passed the 3½-hour mark, the contest would end after that inning.
Playing with Tohoku in their hearts and minds, the Eagles were hoping to lift spirits, or at least briefly provide a distraction, with their play.
Rasner said getting back to baseball, however, was challenging, especially after seeing the devastation up close when the team finally returned to Sendai in early April.
“I remember looking from the airport to the town, the whole place was wiped out,” Rasner said. “Not one word was spoken on the bus. Everyone’s hearts were broken, I’m still sad. I’m just recalling these things. The devastation that had happened. It was a beautiful city before. I don’t think there was a single word spoken by anybody the entire trip home. Not a peep.”
Rasner remembers Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino, who passed away in 2018, setting the tone for the team.
“We were all lucky to have Hoshino-san as our manager,” Rasner said. “I think he was what we needed as a team. His leadership was incredible. His message was that we win for the fans, that we do everything we can to win every game for the fans.”
Following Hoshino’s lead, Tanaka, the team’s biggest star and catcher Motohiro Shima, Rakuten’s player rep, shouldered the burden of being the club’s most prominent voices.
“I remember them both taking that on and being the leaders and really the spokespeople,” Rasner said. “They both stepped it up and they stepped it up big time. Not only as the spokespeople, but also on the field. They showed up and they gave the fans everything they had.”
The Eagles finished that season in fifth place in the six-team Pacific League. Two years later in 2013, with Rasner still on the team, Rakuten lifted spirits in the region by winning the PL pennant and Japan Series title.
Rasner recalls some moments of the 2011 season more vividly than others. What still stands out, though, is the strength and compassion he saw from the people in Tohoku in the aftermath.
“It’s something I talk about today,” Rasner said. “The strength of the people of Sendai and Japan during that time was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. How everyone came together after that massive disaster and were able to pull together.”
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