BASEBALL / 'Iron men' prove their mettle with Tohoku visit

December 14, 2011

Perseverance is a trait common to baseball’s two reigning “iron men,” and that quality is something they hoped to inspire in the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami when they recently visited the disaster-affected area and held baseball clinics for kids.

American Cal Ripken Jr. and Japan’s Sachio Kinugasa, holders of the records for most consecutive games played in Major League Baseball (2,632) and Nippon Professional Baseball (2,215), respectively, have often been linked because of their remarkable achievements on the baseball diamond. The two former ballplayers have had to overcome numerous challenges to get their names in the record books.

We asked the two baseball legends to share their thoughts on their visit to the areas now recovering and rebuilding from the deadly tsunami, which left about 20,000 people dead or missing in the Tohoku region.

Here are some excerpts from the discussion.

* * *

Sachio Kinugasa: Thanks to your invitation (addressing Ripken), I was able to visit the disaster areas in Tohoku for the first time. We went from Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture to Rikuzentakata and Ofunato cities in Iwate Prefecture. I have a strong impression of your shocked face the second we got to the disaster areas.

Cal Ripken Jr.: Well, you know, I struggled witnessing it firsthand, and I think sometimes I felt like I wanted to go back on the bus to a safe area only because, you know, it bothers you, the reality. It’s hard to fathom until you’re standing in the area witnessing how big it was.

SK: I felt the same way. I was born after World War II, so I didn’t see Japan in its war-ravaged state firsthand. I had seen many scenes of the Tohoku disaster on TV, but when I actually saw the tsunami-hit towns with my own eyes, I was so shocked. I remember that you first looked at the people who were working on the recovery.

CR: I think I tended to not dwell on the damage but actually look at the positives about the effort to reconstruct, so I found myself watching the bulldozer operator or (people working) just with hand tools, thinking it’s a big task. But the workman-like persistence is that, “OK, we’re going to be OK, we’re moving in a reconstruction phase.” To me, that made me feel good because you can’t change what happened, you can only deal with what is here, and I tended to be more positive and looked at those things. And then I started to think about what it’s going to look like when the reconstruction is complete.

SK: Speaking of positives, you were a symbol of a player with perseverance in the baseball world with your consecutive-game record.

CR: We had some pressure playing in games to perform, to win, but in no way could it be compared to the persistence that needs to be applied now. The people that are reconstructing their lives and their homes and their areas, they’re the real heroes. We were just baseball players ... I would make one comparison. To be a baseball player and playing games you need to focus on what you can do, not about what happened yesterday. It’s really about focusing on what you can do today and the successful player, baseball player, has the ability to take the value of their experience yesterday and keep applying it forward. And I think that’s the only thing that, if you look at a consecutive-game streak record, you are learning from your experience but you are really focusing on what you can accomplish today and then do it again tomorrow and then again tomorrow.

SK: During the baseball clinic we held together in the disaster areas, I was inspired by the children who were chasing after the ball with determination. I was so impressed with their strength. They really cherished the time they had to play the sport they loved. Children have such a bright future with so much potential. That may have come through as strength.

CR: We only had a chance to spend a small (amount of) time with the kids and I was watching them very carefully, and you’re right, they are heroes and they have to deal with things they don’t have a lot of experience dealing with because they haven’t lived that long. But it’s the reality of the situation and kids can be very resilient. But my thought was, when I was working with them, that a sports team can be your second family, you know. Many times we used to joke, when we played every single day together, that this was our second family--that we’re spending more time with this group than our family at home.

SK: I told the kids in Ofunato, “You may have experienced something scary and sad, but sports will help you forget those things, even if it’s just for a while.” When children are dedicating themselves to something they love, nothing negative can get in the way. They may experience more negative incidents in the future, but if they can just remember the fun time we had, I think that alone makes your visit from the U.S. very valuable. The road to recovery is not smooth, but I hope people will accumulate joyful experiences one by one--be it through sports or through meeting people while playing sports.

CR: The magic, the power, it gives you something to focus on but it also gives you an uplifting feeling. You know that maybe that’s hard to define. Why does it make you smile when you hit a baseball? Why does it make you smile when you complete a play? There’s a sense of satisfaction, a sense of joy, and maybe it’s a connection to just playing, because we all enjoy playing. We all have memories as kids of just playing, and I think sports has that ability to remind us, you know, it’s fun, it’s about play. Even though it gets serious at the professional level, it doesn’t take away the joy that the sport gives you. So I’m really happy that many of these kids can use baseball to heal, to feel good about themselves and feel that they’re connected to other people. I really believe in that.

SK: I was also one of those people under the magic spell of sports. Initially, right after the quake, I had difficulty determining what I could do to help as an athlete. I’m sure all athletes felt the same way. When you retired in 2001, your country suffered the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There are differences between earthquakes and terrorist attacks, but both incidents were devastating and tragic. How did you feel back then?

CR: I mean disasters and terrorist attacks are different but still sometimes your reaction to the reality, to what you have to deal with, is what matters. ... Moving forward with your life and really looking at the people around you for support, and for you to support them. And I think I lived my whole life through sports and had wonderful experiences, so I relate in a sports sense. When things get tough, you really want to focus on the things that make you feel good, and baseball always made me feel good. And so I want to share that sort of joy. and I really appreciate when other people feel the same way, but that’s not the only answer. I think … that people need people, you can’t get through life alone. And so in tough times, hard times, we rely on those closest to us to help, we rely on people. So I think that’s the (lesson) that all situations might teach you--what you can do, how you can help, what you can focus on, those things, your actions and your behavior.

SK: Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, various sports organizations and athletes have been engaged in recovery assistance. I think such efforts spread bonds and circles of friendship all over Japan, which is not something limited to the world of sports. Japan used to cherish such bonds and friendships, but as the nation began seeking wealth, people became more self-centered and their ties with other people became weaker. What people in disaster areas went through was tragic, but I think many of them have now realized what they lost, what they had taken for granted, and the ties that they had with their families, friends and communities.

CR: I’m really happy that many of these kids can use baseball to heal, to feel good about themselves and feel that they’re connected to other people. I really believe in that. And we were able to see it in a small way, you know. Mr. Kinugasa always would say, “We have (only a little) time with you today, we’re going to try to make the best of our time and try to teach you some things. You probably already know them but we’re going to try to give it to you and maybe give you a deeper understanding.” But, really, the value was connection. I’ve connected with Mr. Kinugasa. I enjoyed when he came over (to the United States) when I broke his record in a ceremony in Kansas City, and being able to have a relaxed atmosphere to talk and compare life experiences and thoughts, I really enjoyed that. And so I don’t want to wait from 1996 to 2011 for the next time. I’ve enjoyed this whole experience for a lot of reasons, but mostly for the people connections.

SK: I think it’s also important for us to retain these feelings for a long time. In the busy modern world, everything moves at lightning speed and many things are easily forgotten. In the disaster areas, many damaged buildings and cars are neglected as are many piles of debris. I realized how difficult it must be to clear up all the debris. And the damaged nuclear power plants continue to be an issue. I expect it will take a very long time for Tohoku to make a recovery. That’s why we need to continue having empathy for the disaster areas.

I believe that what the survivors are seeking most is to return to their normal lives, even if that takes a long time. In 1995, the year of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in western Japan, a local ballclub, the Orix BlueWave, won the Pacific League in Japanese professional baseball. This really encouraged the quake survivors. I think it was because they felt like the league victory was one sign of a return to normalcy. After this year’s quake, I hope to use sports to help disaster survivors in the same way.

CR: My mom always told me, “If you ever become a baseball player, then you have a bigger level of influence and you should take advantage of that and you should use that for good.”

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Sachio Kinugasa, left, and Cal Ripken Jr. (Asahi Shimbun photos)

Sachio Kinugasa, left, and Cal Ripken Jr. (Asahi Shimbun photos)

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  • Sachio Kinugasa, left, and Cal Ripken Jr. (Asahi Shimbun photos)

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