Tsunami relief heroes honored at opener

Tsunami relief heroes honored at opener

Tsunami relief heroes honored at opener
TOKYO -- Andy Anderson had a pink cell phone with frilly straps poking out of his pants pocket as he threw a ceremonial first pitch before the first Major League Baseball game played during the 2012 season in the Tokyo Dome.

Anderson didn't know if he could summon the strength to get the ball to home plate, so he looked down at that pink phone.

"I had Taylor's cell phone and her straps ... because they remind me of her, and when I think about her, I feel stronger, so I was able to get the ball in there," Anderson said. "That's what I thought about: Taylor."

Taylor Anderson was a 24-year-old English teacher living in the city of Ishinomaki, about 200 miles north of Tokyo on the Japanese coast. On March 11, 2011, she had ridden her bicycle to her school, Mangokuura Elementary. When the 9.0 earthquake hit at 2:46 p.m., Anderson helped her students by ushering them onto a playground from where their parents could pick them up. Once she felt they were safe, she began to ride her bike home. She was caught up in the ensuing tsunami, and her body was found 10 days later.

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Since that time, her parents, Andy and Jean, have helped start the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund, which has donated money to help rebuild the Tohoku region, which was devastated by the disaster, and the loved ones of the more than 15,000 people who perished.

On Wednesday night, the Andersons were joined by two other heroes who have dedicated their lives to helping in the recovery as MLB presented a touching video presentation and honored these representatives of the cause prior to the first pitch.

"We felt that we had an opportunity to really remind people about the amount of work that needs to be done in Tohoku in the coming months and years to get it back to where it needs to be, so we looked at over 200 different stories, and we felt that the people that you see up here tonight best exemplified the volunteerism that took place in Tohoku in both the days and the subsequent year after March 11," MLB Asia vice president Jim Small said during an in-game news conference at the stadium.

"By honoring them, we would be inspiring others."

The other two heroes had similar stories of courage under pressure and grace toward their fellow human beings.

One was Shinji Takai, a man who gave up a lucrative career as a computer programmer to work with the land in his town of Kesennuma as a strawberry farmer. Takai and his wife and son survived the tsunami, but his farm and his home did not. During the recovery, Takai pitched in to clean up his wrecked village and discovered countless family photographs among the rubble. He collected thousands upon thousands of images, all damaged by the receding waters and fraying caused by piles of debris, and he resolved to have them restored. So far, he has succeeded, but he has a long way to go.

Takai said Wednesday night that being acknowledged for his deeds only reminded him of three goals: to be a better father, to continue his photo project and to get his farm back up and running as soon as possible.

"Tonight I came up with a new determination for this," he said through an interpreter. "So I want to thank everyone for making me feel this way tonight."

The third hero was Naho Hozumi, who was at lunch with a friend in Tokyo when the tsunami hit. Unable to turn off the TV, she called up a local community organization, Hands On Tokyo, and within days was packing trucks with supplies. Soon enough, she was the Hands On Tokyo disaster relief program manager, a far cry from her previous existence as a stay-at-home mother and PTA member who played a lot of tennis and hung out with her husband, son and two dogs. She continues to work for Hands On Tokyo to this day and said she was hopeful that Wednesday's publicity would encourage more people to get involved in a cause that still needs a massive amount of help.

"It's been over a year, and right now, there are more than 1,000 volunteers and many more sponsors who are trying to meet the needs of the disaster area," she said through an interpreter. "After a year of volunteering, the amount of volunteers is not as high as it used to be a year back, but with this big event, we feel that the importance of volunteering has been restored.

"So we would like to continue our progress as much as possible and we'd like to expand it to meet more needs of those who are suffering."

As the heroes stood on the field for the national anthems, the flags of the United States and Japan were in clear view and the word "Tomodachi" -- or "friendship" -- appeared on the big screen at the end of the video that featured narration by Derek Jeter, Bobby Valentine and Cal Ripken Jr.

After the first inning, the news conference contained heartwarming and heartbreaking stories, including those of the Andersons and three Little Leaguers from Ishinomaki, who appeared in their uniforms and smiled broadly as they were presented real big league baseballs by Small.

"If it weren't for this opportunity, I wouldn't be inside the Tokyo Dome, so I'm thankful for this opportunity," said Sho Chiba, an 11-year-old from Inai Elementary School. "It was very sad. Our team manager passed away because of the disaster, so I decided that I would honor his memory and keep playing baseball the way he taught us."

Haruka Kumagai, 11, of Okaido Elementary School said he lost his home in the tsunami and ended up moving to two different temporary shelters.

"From there," he said, "I had to go a long way to baseball practice every Saturday and Sunday, and those trips were very hard."

And then there was 11-year-old Ryuto Abe of Kaihoku Elementary, whose mother perished in the tsunami but couldn't help but beam any time he interacted with a Major Leaguer on Tuesday during the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners' visit to the stadium in Ishinomaki or on Wednesday on the field before the game.

"I lost my mother in the tsunami, but I'm quite sure that she was watching me being with the players from up there," Abe said. "So I'm really thankful."

And despite all their loss and grief, so were the Andersons.

"My message to the people of Tohoku is that Jean and I have had a loss, as many of the people of Tohoku have, and what we think about is remembering Taylor and how we think she would have acted, and honoring her by acting in that way," Andy Anderson said.

"So I hope what the people in Tohoku can do is think the same. I just think that we all have to heal, and the way to heal is to look forward and hope. I think remembering our loved ones and how they acted gives us a lot of hope. And I think that helps you get up every day and have the courage to change your life, because people have to change their lives after what happened."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.