Guiel on-deck in Yokohama as earth moved, first-hand look at Japanese quake
*Benjamin Parks photo
Aaron Guiel earns his living playing ball in Japan for the Yakult Swallows. He was in the on-deck circle during a pre-season game the day the earth moved during Japan’s 9.0 earthquake.
In his first four years in Japan, former big-leaguer Aaron Guiel figures he experienced five or six earthquakes per year, each lasting anywhere between 20 to 40 seconds. Some, he says, weren’t big enough to notice, while others were fairly significant in size. None, however, prepared him for the devastating one that hit Japan on March 11.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” said Guiel (Vancouver, BC), who was playing in a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) preseason game at the time the earthquake hit. “It was much, much stronger than anything that I’d ever felt here. You could tell it was a different kind of earthquake.”
It didn’t start that way, though. When the quake struck, it was the seventh inning, and Guiel was in the on-deck circle in a game that his team — the Tokyo Yakult Swallows — was leading 3-1 over the Yokohama BayStars. The Canadian outfielder heard a short announcement over the PA before he felt the ground start to shake beneath him.
“Most of the guys [teammates] thought it was a typical 20 to 30-second earthquake and then it would be finished,” Guiel said. “But it just kept going and increasing in strength. It was like being on a skateboard or a surfboard out in the ocean, and somebody being behind you, shaking you in all different directions trying to knock you off.”
Nor did the majority of the 3,756 fans in attendance at Yokohama Stadium that afternoon realize the severity of the quake right away.
“People in Japan are so used to earthquakes,” Guiel said. “It really didn’t seem out of the ordinary at first, so people weren’t panicking. It wasn’t until the intensity increased to a point where people in the stands were getting thrown around their seats and the stands were going back and forth.”
The players left the dugout and moved towards the middle of the field. From there, they saw the shaking stands and the swaying buildings surrounding the stadium. The movement lasted between two and three minutes.
“It was a pretty incredible thing to watch,” Guiel said. “But, at that time, we had no idea what was going to happen. We were quickly brought back to reality when they turned the scoreboard off and put the tv news on.”
What those at Yokohama Stadium had experienced was, in fact, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the biggest in Japan’s recorded history. In the northern part of the country, some 250 kilometres away, the result was tragic. Mere minutes following the earthquake, the region was hit with a devastating tsunami that claimed thousands of lives. Two weeks after the quake, the death toll had climbed to over 10,000.
In Yokohama, the players and fans were instructed to stay in the middle of the field following the quake. They, too, were bracing for aftershocks or a possible tsunami.
“We were actually expecting one [a tsunami] in Yokohama,” Guiel said. “They said there could be one that’s going to hit very, very soon. So we only had minutes warning, and there wasn’t anything we could do.”
Luckily, they didn’t have to find out. Yokohama did experience a large aftershock within minutes following the quake, but no one was hurt. And an hour later, those at the Stadium were allowed to leave.
“It was on the drive home that things started to become clear about what had actually happened up in Sendai,” Guiel said. “Then we realized how serious the situation was.”
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With the highways closed due to the tsunami warnings, Guiel and his Swallows teammates took a lengthy detour back to their apartments in Tokyo. Upon his return, the Canadian quickly got in touch with his family back home in Vancouver to reassure them that he was okay.
“I called [my wife] right away and let her know,” he said. “She’s been in Japan, too, when there have been some earthquakes, so she knows. I told her there had been a really big earthquake, but I had to say it twice so that she understood that this one was different than before.”
It didn’t sink in for Lareina, Guiel says, until she turned on CNN and received calls from friends and family when earthquake coverage started to unfold. Unfortunately, that coverage resulted in panic for those watching back home, and Guiel had to doubly reassure family and friends that he was safe.
“They were seeing how sensationalized the media is,” he said. “I had to tell them that the images they were seeing … that’s not what the whole country looks like. People see it on television, and they think you’re in the middle of it. But that just wasn’t accurate.”
There was certainly chaos and destruction in northern Japan, Guiel says, but Tokyo and the surrounding area came out of the earthquake relatively unscathed. That message wasn’t being delivered by CNN, he says, and it frustrated him and his teammates — both foreign and Japanese alike.
“Our family members were watching and calling scared and crying,” he said. “Some of the words they [CNN] used … they inspired panic. They were talking about death and destruction and all this. There was a part of the country that was in deep trouble, and there was a lot of that stuff going on, but after the earthquake Tokyo was pretty safe.”
That said, Japan’s capital city wasn’t completely without its concerns. There was danger posed to Tokyo by the damaged nuclear reactors approximately 240 kilometres north, in Fukushima. And there still remains the risk of contamination from leaked radiation.
Seeking to avoid any fallout from the disaster, several foreign NPB players left Japan in the days following the earthquake. Some did so with permission from their teams (including the five American ballplayers on the BayStars). Others, though, left against their team’s wishes, including former big-leaguers Brian Bannister and Dee Brown.
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Guiel, the lone Canadian playing in NPB, received permission to travel back home for a few days — though his situation was unique. With a break in the schedule, the Swallows suggested Guiel use the time to visit his back specialist in Vancouver (the 38-year-old is still in rehab mode following back surgery last October).
But aside from the back checkup, the trip meant he was also able to see his family, including Lareina and his three kids — daughters Avery (seven) and Taliya (five), and son Nolan (two).
“It was nice because I was able to reassure them that I’m okay,” said Guiel, who added that the disaster certainly put his life into perspective. “To watch the videos and see what was happening … it’s so very sad. And then for me to be with my family again, it makes you look at them and be grateful.”
But after just a few days, Guiel was back on a plane to Japan. The chance to reassure his family was nice, but he says the time they spent together won’t completely alleviate any fears they might have about him returning to Tokyo.
“Until everything is completely okay, I think there’s still going to be a little nervousness,” he said. “But I’ll just have to constantly give her [Lareina] updates on the situation just to keep her mind at ease with everything.”
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Guiel’s Swallows, who play in the six-team Central League, were originally scheduled to open the season on March 25, just two weeks following the disaster. At first, that date wasn’t pushed back by league officials, despite the urging of the players’ association.
“As players, we felt that there was really still too much going on [to start the season],” Guiel said. “The nuclear situation … they’re still taking care of that. And there are still people buried up there and people grieving. So I think a lot of players had concerns about whether we should actually be playing.”
Citing the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, in which Major League Baseball returned to action 10 days later, NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato said baseball in Japan could similarly serve to bring the country together in a time of tragedy.
“Pro baseball needs to be a pillar of strength for the Japanese people,” he said. “We need to act as one, provide support, and lift the spirits of the people.”
“They felt that going ahead with the season was the best thing to do,” Guiel said. “I disagree with it. I think the people would feel funny cheering and rooting for their team. I really don’t understand the rush to begin a regular season and play meaningful games.”
That sentiment was shared by other NPB players. Several of them — and not just foreigners — came out and said they did not agree with the decision to start the season on time after such tragic circumstances. That group included Yu Darvish, one of Japan’s top pitchers, who spoke out shortly after the quake.
“I am asking myself if I can just go on playing when a majority of people in Japan are in trouble,” said Darvish, the Nippon Ham Fighters’ star pitcher. “I am a baseball player and a human being as well. I cannot think about baseball alone as I normally do.”
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Finally, amidst pressure from the government to conserve energy, the Central League moved the season’s start date back four days, to March 29. Then, on Thursday, the league finally succumbed to the government and the players’ association and announced the postponement of Opening Day until April 12, the same date that the six-team Pacific League, Japan’s other pro circuit, will get underway. Both leagues plan to play full 144-game schedules, which may push play into December.
In order to preserve electricity, some teams have been asked by the government not to play any home night games in April. Other games have been switched due to the possibility of rolling blackouts in the Tokyo area, while no games will be held in the Tokyo Dome, the home of the Yomiuri Giants, during the first month of the season.
The exhibition schedule resumed shortly after the earthquake, but many games were switched from ‘preseason’ games to ‘practice’ games, which meant they were played without fans in attendance. Games open to fans resumed one week after the quake.
The Swallows resumed their preseason action on March 19, losing 4-0 to the Softbank Hawks in front of 24,605 at the Yahoo Dome. At the time, Guiel was in Vancouver. Now back in Japan, the Canadian is continuing his rehab in preparation for the 2011 season, which will mark his fifth in a Swallows uniform and 19th in pro ball. Though he likely still won’t be ready for the new Opening Day, he should be ready sometime in April.
“I’m getting close, but I’m doing a little extra rehab now so that I don’t miss time later on down the road,” said Guiel, who spent parts of five seasons in the major leagues (2002-2005 with the Kansas City Royals, and 2006 with the New York Yankees). “I don’t want to limp through this season, so I want to make sure it’s 100% before I get back in there.”
When fully healthy, Guiel will likely be required to put in some time with the Swallows’ farm team to get his timing back, and then hopefully rejoin the big club soon after that. There, he’ll be looking to rebound from a disappointing 2010 season that was cut short by injury. A return to his 2009 numbers — a team-high 27 home runs, a .533 slugging percentage and 80 RBIs — is more what he has in mind.
But right now, that’s at the back of his mind.
“As a player, all of our thoughts are still on what happened in Sendai,” Guiel said. “I think there are going to be days where it’s going to be difficult [to play baseball].”
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Still, Guiel doesn’t think it will take long for some normalcy to return to Japan. From a cultural standpoint, he says, the Japanese are quick to return — at least on the surface — to ‘business as usual.’
“I think a place like Japan will have the ability to do that quicker than most,” he said. “The Japanese are so unified. It’s the kind of place where everyone will just look to each other and say, ‘You know, together we have to just kind of move along.’ Not forget the people or forget what happened, but move on and try to get normal lives.”
In fact, Guiel says, the country feels a responsibility to move forward. The Prime Minister has said Japan needs things like baseball to both get the economy back on track and return some normalcy to people’s daily lives.
“It’s their way of dealing with it,” Guiel said. “It’s not the way we would deal with it at home. Everything would be very, very emotional. There would be tributes constantly, and we would be using that to get over it. But the Japanese have their own way. That’s not to say that it’s right or wrong. I don’t know what the best way is to deal with it.”
To be sure, the tragedy will still be on the minds of the players, Guiel included. But he thinks it will be more difficult during practices, as well as the time before and after games. He’s hopeful that once the game begins, the distraction of baseball will help.
“If you talk to any athlete in any sport, when the game begins, you spend very little time thinking about anything other than your task and what you’re doing,” he said. “I think when the games begin, most players will be able to concentrate, and maybe take their mind off everything. And I think what the teams are hoping is that when the first pitch is thrown, it will take the Japanese peoples’ minds off what happened also.”