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Ichiro Suzuki and baseball bring smiles to Japan on Opening Day

Major League Baseball players visit areas hit hard by tsunami.

Opening Day in JapanEnlarge
Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma greets fans in Ishinomaki, Japan, on Tuesday. Players from MLB's Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics held a baseball clinic and served "tonjiru" stew to kids affected by the 2011 tsunami. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

Baseball might seem trivial compared to the devastation of last year’s earthquake and tsunami that leveled Japan’s coastline.

The chance to forget is why baseball matters so much this week, however.

Ichiro Suzuki and his Seattle Mariners open the Major League Baseball season today in Tokyo against the Oakland A’s.

It’s the fourth time MLB has asked teams to play in Japan, and never has the stage been so dramatic.

On Tuesday, the teams held a baseball clinic for about 100 kids in Ishinomaki, where 5,000 people died on March 11, 2011, after a wall of water slammed the coastal city of 164,000.

“It’s important for the kids and for this area,” resident Shoshin Kometani told the Seattle Times. “As you can see the faces on these kids, they’re smiling and they’re happy. ... And that’s really important.”

More from GlobalPost: After the Tsunami

MLB and the players’ union donated $500,000 to refurbish the city’s baseball stadium, which was used as a staging area during earthquake relief efforts.

As well as repairing the damage, the money will pay for artificial turf so the stadium can be used all year.

“It’s hard to imagine devastation of this size,” A’s president Mike Crowley told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Losing 5,000 people in one town, we can’t fathom that. To see what these folks went through a year later is staggering.”

Baseball’s modest efforts this week are doubled when you consider Seattle boasts three very popular Japanese players on the roster.

Ichiro Suzuki is a future Hall of Famer who has played in the US for more than a decade. His image is omnipresent in Japan this week, and his every move is followed by media there.

More than 40,000 fans bought tickets to watch Seattle play an exhibition game against a Japanese team earlier this week, cheering voraciously when Ichiro came up to bat.

“I felt a lot of tension so that was quite a moment,” Suzuki told USA Today after managing one hit in four at-bats. “It didn't feel like an exhibition game and there was a different atmosphere.”

The other Japanese-born Mariners are Munenori Kawasaki, an eight-time all-star in Japan before joining Seattle, and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma. 

Iwakuma played baseball in the Ishinomaki area before opting for the States, and said he wants to ensure the world knows what Japan endured a year ago.

“It’s going to be very helpful to see them, to say hello,'' Iwakuma told The Seattle Times before the clinic. “It’s been a year after and they still need help.”'

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/japan/120328/suzuki-baseball-bring-smiles-japan-opening-day