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D-backs bring joy to youngsters on goodwill tour

Gonzalez, La Russa, Big Unit visit children in area affected by earthquake, tsunami

ISHINOMAKI, Japan -- If it is true that time heals all wounds, the people of this coastal community have begun to sense some normalcy more than four years after a 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami wiped out nearly 15 percent of its population. But the signs of devastation are still omnipresent throughout the Tohoku region, which is why the D-backs and Major League Baseball returned on Monday for an MLB Road Show that had hundreds of kids smiling despite a steady rain throughout the afternoon.

"To see the progress that the community has made is unbelievable," said D-backs legend Luis Gonzalez, who was part of the team's 2012 visit to the affected areas. "Some of these young kids have experienced tragedy that we will never know in our lifetime and have gone through so much, but they still have the passion and love for the game of baseball, so it was really great to spend time with them."

The festival-type event took place in Ishinomaki Stadium, a first-class venue renovated for $1 million by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association shortly after the tragedy hit. Its mere existence serves as a reminder of the international language of baseball.

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"It's truly special for us to be here," said D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall, who joined the D-backs' contingent two days into the trip after attending MLB's quarterly Owners Meetings in Chicago. "To be back and show again that we do care and that we held our promise when we said that we would be back hopefully helps the people here know that they haven't been forgotten."

The 250 youngsters were clad in D-backs attire, including some wearing jerseys of the lone Japanese player in franchise history, Takashi Saito. Coincidentally, the right-hander, who played for Arizona in 2012, announced his retirement from Japanese baseball at the exact same time as the MLB Road Show was held just 35 miles away in nearby Sendai. In a typically classy gesture, Saito then greeted the D-backs' executives at the train station before they boarded a bullet train back to Tokyo.

It was on the way back to the capital that recent Hall of Fame inductee Randy Johnson reflected on the day's events.

"Being able to reach out to these young kids was really gratifying, because they were probably six or seven years old when their lives were really turned upside down," said Johnson, who stressed the importance of getting an education to the youths. "They were all personally affected by this, and some that were in the crowd may have lost family members and relatives. It was devastating but also very gratifying that in some small way, we could put a smile on their face."

Fellow Hall of Famer Tony La Russa spoke to the youngsters for 45 minutes about the defensive fundamentals of the game, something that is heavily stressed throughout Japanese baseball. He, too, returned to Tokyo unable to forget what he had witnessed on the 45-minute tour of the areas that were hit by the tsunami.

"I remember seeing the pictures on TV back in 2011, but to see the devastation firsthand is so tragic and a reminder that we're all subject to Mother Nature's strength," said La Russa. "There are lessons we can learn about persevering and being determined to rebuild, and we are very proud to be out here with Major League Baseball to try and help support the people and their efforts."

From an MLB perspective, the pride and gratitude was clearly mutual.

"It's very rare for us to have two Hall of Famers, a World Series hero and a club president come to visit Japan," said MLB vice president of Asia Pacific Jim Small. "It's a terrific show by the Diamondbacks and something certainly Major League Baseball appreciates. But more importantly, for the kids out here, this is a day they'll never forget."

Josh Rawitch is a contributor to
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