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Originally published March 27, 2012 at 10:02 PM | Page modified March 27, 2012 at 10:09 PM

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Baseball brings smiles to children devastated by Japan quake, tsunami

Mariners manager Eric Wedge and players view damage firsthand as a nation tries to rebuild one year later.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ISHINOMAKI, Japan — Pictures alone don't do justice to what this city lost on March 11, 2011.

That requires being here and taking a whiff of the air. Just over one year after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake sent a wall of water crashing into this port community of 164,000 people, the stale air still suffocates with the smell of decay.

With the smell of death.

More than 3,800 residents of Ishinomaki died that day from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the most of any city hit. And the rot from flattened neighborhoods, failed sewer lines and piles of abandoned garbage, mixed with seawater that flooded miles inland, creates a stench that tells you something awful happened here.

Not far from the skeletal hulks of ruined factories and twisted, smashed cars neatly stacked three and four high sits a municipal baseball stadium where the city's children used to play. For one hour on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, those youngsters got a rare chance to smile when members of the Mariners and Oakland Athletics walked on to that field with them and reminded folks what having fun used to be like.

"It's important for the kids and for this area," community organizer Shoshin Kometani, said through an interpreter as he stood on the dirt infield watching excited youngsters dash about trying to get closer to the big leaguers. "As you can see the faces on these kids, they're smiling and they're happy. ... And that's really important."

It would be impossible for a billion-dollar sport to open its regular season Wednesday morning at 3:10 a.m. with a game between Mariners and the Oakland Athletics in the princely Tokyo Dome without acknowledging the bad smell from 210 miles to the east.

Kometani looked on as Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who played in nearby Sendai for Rakuten of the Japanese League last season, led a group of youngsters through a brief workout. Joining him were manager Eric Wedge and his wife, Kate, pitcher Hector Noesi, infielder Alex Liddi and A's pitchers Tyson Ross, Tom Milone and Evan Scribner.

They put 100 local youth-league players through their paces, with hundreds more of their parents, friends and inhabitants of local shelters watching from the stands and sidelines.

"It's going to be very helpful to see them, to say hello," Iwakuma had said of the children, through an interpreter, just before taking the field. "It's been a year after and they still need help."

Various teams and individual players have donated millions to the cause. Mariners star Ichiro, who was in Tokyo working out with the rest of the team, donated $1.25 million to the Japanese Red Cross.

But so much remains to be done. Ishinomaki, Everett's sister city, is one town among dozens devastated by the quake and tsunami, stretching across more than 200 miles of coastline. The Japanese government grappled for months trying to get an adequate food supply to the region. The death toll has surpassed 19,000.

This isn't something Major League Baseball can solve with a few seven-figure checks. Instead, MLB and its Players Association is sticking to what it knows; cutting a $500,000 check to get the stadium up and running again while hoping sports celebrities raise awareness and make life a little easier.

"Some of the kids had to move into temporary housing," Kometani said of the young players taking part in the clinic. "Some had to leave Ishinomaki and move to a different prefecture. So, the community has been through some very sad things."

Unemployment has doubled in the city after a whaling community there saw 80 percent of its homes and factories leveled.

A 35-foot-high fish-oil tank blocks the right lane of the main highway, forcing cars to swerve around it. The tank, painted red like a giant soup can to attract visitors to a whaling factory, was swept more than 1,000 feet by the wave.

Also visible from the highway is charred Kadonowaki Elementary School, which caught fire when the tsunami slammed cars into it and ignited with oil in the water. At the nearby Okawa Elementary, 70 children and nine teachers were swept away.

"You hear about it, but to see it is another thing," Wedge said of his view out the window of a bus. "And then, you think about the area that we saw and multiply that by another 150 miles of devastation."

More than 50,000 residents were instantly homeless by the initial 16-foot wave, which was relatively small compared to other waves that hit the coast. But it packed a lethal punch because the flat land around the city made escape to high ground difficult. The tsunami flooded 46 percent of the city, which shifted four feet downward by the initial quake.

Wedge said he hoped the players being there would raise world awareness about the area's ongoing issues.

But he also said these people need something more: the ability to forget their troubles for an afternoon. And for a short time, he and the Mariners helped them do that. Local residents began massing in the parking lot outside the stadium an hour before the players arrived.

Wedge and the players got off the bus just before 1 p.m. local time. They walked a gantlet of fans — most of them children — high-fiving and chatting on their way into the ballpark.

"Konichiwa! Konichiwa!" the children called out, saying "Hello" in Japanese.

Once inside, the young baseball-clinic participants, dressed in Mariners and A's uniforms, could barely contain themselves as local officials gave speeches and accepted the check from Major League Baseball and the Players Association.

The stadium wasn't touched by the tsunami, but did suffer some quake damage. It was also used as a staging facility for Japanese military assisting with the relief effort, which ruined most of the field and dugouts.

The money will pay for a new drainage system and synthetic infield surface so children can use the field year-round.

When Wedge visited Japan in January to prepare for the trip, he thought the money would be better used assisting people in temporary housing. Then he was told how much the ballpark had meant to the community as a gathering place for families.

"From my understanding, one of the lights of that community was that baseball field," the Mariners manager said. "And it was like nonstop. There was always something going on there. Nonstop. And then, when they lost that, it was just on top of everything else."

Wedge gathered kids in the far reaches of the outfield, and with Mariners infielder Liddi, demonstrated proper hitting technique.

"Barrel of the bat, barrel of the bat," he kept telling the youngsters, as they lined ball after ball off a tee.

Nearby, parents stood, watching. Some kids lost a mother or father in the disaster, but the parents who were here bore smiles as big as their children's.

"That's the way they should look all the time," Wedge said. "But, you know, they haven't had a lot of that."

Less than an hour later, the players were gone, to catch the high-speed train back to Tokyo. But, for a moment, they had time to reflect on something other than giant cans, piles of crushed cars and the stench that won't go away.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or seattletimes.com">gbaker@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @gbakermariners. Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners.

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