Delayed by quake and tsunami, baseball finally returns to Japan

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File photo: Nippon Ham Fighter ace baseball pitcher Yu Darvish (2L) and his teammates start fund-raising campaign for victims of the tsunami and a massive earthquake in Sapporo in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido on March 22, 2011.

The 2011 baseball season is just a few hours away. Not in the U.S. but in Japan, where last month’s giant earthquake and tsunami delayed Opening Day for three weeks.

The first two games begin at 11 p.m. Pacific time. That's 1 p.m. Tuesday in Japan.

The Yokohama Bay Stars will host the Central League champion Chunichi Dragons, while the Pacific League's Rakuten Golden Eagles will visit the Chiba Lotte Marines, last year's Nippon Series winners.

The Golden Eagles are based in Sendai, the city in northern Japan hammered by the quake and tsunami. The team's home stadium is five miles from the coast, but survived with only minor damage.

The Eagles will open on the road. But to give workers extra time to fix the ballpark in Sendai, the team moved its first two home series to stadiums in Tokyo and Kobe. The Eagles won’t play in Sendai until April 29, assuming the repairs are finished.

The Central and the Pacific leagues have switched night games in domed stadiums to day games in outdoor stadiums this month. League officials and the players decided that powering up lights in a domed stadium didn’t seem right when a good portion of the country is still struggling with rolling blackouts.

Japan’s 12 major league teams played exhibition games last month to raise money for disaster relief. Japanese players in the U.S. chipped in, too – with Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki topping all with a pledge of a $1.25 million (100 million yen).

Some American players in Japan were rattled by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, and headed home in March. Former San Diego Padre and Long Beach State star Termel Sledge flew to the U.S., but a week later, he rejoined the Yokohama Bay Stars.

That's good news for the Stars – Sledge is their best homerun hitter.

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