Friday, March 11, 2011

And the Band Played On: Scouting the Sendai Sports Scene after Friday's Tsunami

In the wake of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, it will take an enormous amount of time for the citizens of Sendai to get life back to any semblance of normalcy. Natural disasters have a way uniting a population against a common enemy with a goal putting smiles back on the faces of those who have stared down an unimaginable horror and now face the prospect of a rebuilding project.

The closest we can relate to stateside in recent memory has been hurricane aftermaths like those of Andrew in '92 and Katrina in '05. In both of those cases, much ado was made about the sports teams the cities of Miami and New Orleans rallied around, using their stadiums for temporary shelter and as a common point of strength for the communities.

Sendai itself is an up-and-coming sports city. As recently as 1999, they had no top-flight sports clubs, yet today sport three teams at the height of the nation's standards.

They offer a currently second-place team in the Basketball Japan League called the Sendai 89ers, so named after the city's modern foundation in 1889. The team starts three Americans, F/C Tommy Swanson, F Michael Bell and Chris Holm and is coming off of a two-game sweep of Saitama Bron. The 89ers are in game 36 of a 53-game schedule, and last season were the Eastern Division runners up.

The league founded in 2005 and currently features such up-and-coming American players as 19-year-old Jeremy Tyler of Tokyo Apache, who is taking the Brandon Jennings route of playing overseas professionally instead of playing in college prior to the NBA draft.

Sendai also is home to Vegalta Sendai of the J-League (the Japanese soccer league). The team had been playing since 1988 as the Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc. Soccer Club and played in the second tier of Japanese soccer, the Japanese Football League from 1992 until the league contracted and they were promoted with the J-League's expansion in 1999.

The J-League is swiftly gaining popularity on the island nation with younger generations who like the self expression of the sport over the sacrificial, team-oriented Nippon Baseball League that has been so popular since professional baseball began in 1934.

Vegalta plays in the league's third smallest stadium, reportedly seating 19,694 spectators, and the team itself has yet to be competitive since their promotion from the second division in 2009, barely avoiding relegation with their 14th place performance last season. (They finished with 39 points, and the last team relegated had 36.) The team opened the season on March 5 with a 0-0 tie against Hiroshima, and were slated to face Nagoya this week in a game that, with all other scheduled J-League games, has been canceled with no reported make-up date set.

Baseball fans were displeased when the Orix Blue Wave (Ichiro's former team) and Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes combined out of financial stress to form the Orix Buffaloes in 2005. The merger caused the already weaker Pacific division to only have five teams, sparking the first strike in Japanese professional baseball history. 

The winners were the cities of Sendai and Miyagi, who started the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The team has fielded the Brooklyn-born Luis Lopez at third base and currently starts former New York Yankees pitcher Darrell Rasner. The MLB blog Bombers Beat interviewed Rasner:

"We were not in town when that hit," Rasner wrote in an e-mail. "The guys on the team were in Kobe and I was on the bullet train going to Tokyo when the earthquake hit. By the time the tsunami hit, I was in a hotel room glued to the TV, watching it unfold."

Rasner said that his family is not currently in Japan, but he expressed sympathy for those who are suffering there.

"I just feel really bad for the people up there right now and what they are going through," Rasner wrote. "I have a couple guys on the team I talked with last night that are up in Sendai right now. I talked to them for a couple minutes and [they] said all the power was out. They were staying in a big tent by the field with a whole bunch of people.  It's really too bad."

Despite growing pains of an expansion team, the Golden Eagles posted their first winning record in 2009, finishing second in the Pacific League. After an unremarkable performance in 2010, the club was looking forward to the beginning of the 2011 season, which was set to begin in April. While reports  are slow coming in, it has been reported to the site that Toma Irokawa, an infielder from Sendai, who played with the Marysville Gold Sox team in California last season, reported that all his family and friends in Sendai are just fine. 

As for Sendai's home stadium, reports, "We expect no impact to the tour.  It is, however, likely that the stadium in Sendai will be impacted.  In that event, the Sendai club would play their home games on the road or at an alternate home stadium.  The April tour, however, does not have a game in Sendai on the schedule.  All April tour games are in Tokyo and to the south, areas far less impacted than Sendai."

In golf, the Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup in Kochi has been suspended due to the spreading turmoil and respect for those afflicted by the disaster. The World Figure Skating Championships to be held in Tokyo will go on as planned on March 21-27. Most other events, such as the freestyle mogul national championships which are being held away from the city of Sendai, will also go on as planned.

Sendai is truly breaking out in the world of Japanese professional sports, but after Friday's tsunami, all that is on the back burner for now. But when the city needs to focus on something besides their rebuilding effort this year, their teams will always be there.


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