Lauren Lappin's first impression of the Japan Women's Softball League was better than she could've ever imagined. A former Northwestern softball coach from 2009-10, Lappin had signed to play professionally overseas in Japan and found herself immediately welcomed into the country with open arms.
After a three-hour drive from the airport into the city of Mooka, Lappin pulled up to her new apartment to discover an unforgettable scene. Hanging out of windows of the top floors of the building were many of her new teammates, waving and yelling "Lappin! Lappin!" in clear anticipation and excitement. Others ran outside and practically trampled the USSSA Pride catcher and her interpreter as they got out of the car, reaching for her luggage and a hug. The gesture was one that Lappin would never forget and became the first of many experiences to convince her that, though the language barrier was considerable, she would have no problems assimilating with ease.
Run by the Japan Softball Association, the Japan Women's Softball League is comprised of 12 teams that compete in a 22-game split season; the first half from April to early-June and the second half from September to November. Each team is allowed two foreigners on their roster, providing many players from the United States the opportunity to continue playing softball year-round after college. Currently, there are eight Americans competing on Japanese teams for the 2011 season.
Lappin's first practice only confirmed her belief that she would fit right in. That morning, Lappin learned that in Japan, the team takes on all the responsibilities of the field crew before warm-ups even begin, and meticulous six-hour practices are considered short. Yes, it was a different way to approach the sport that she had fallen in love with as a little girl, but it gave her an entirely new level of respect for her teammates and for the game. She went to bed that night excited to learn from this group of women who had a fresh perspective on the game she had come to live and breathe, unaware that the next morning on March 11 -- just 48 hours after she had arrived in Mooka -- everything was about to change.
Just 182 miles to the southwest of Mooka, in Kariya, another former Wildcat had also set foot on Japanese soil. Eileen Canney, a two-time All-America pitcher who led Northwestern to the World Series in 2006 and 2007, had landed on March 2 and was gearing up for her second season in the league with Team Denso. Canney was coming off her first summer as a member of USA Softball and was eager to return to her old teammates to help Team Denso to its second playoff appearance in team history.
The team wasted no time beginning extensive training after Canney's arrival. For two weeks, she and her teammates ran, practiced and scrimmaged in preparation for the 2011 season. Friday, March 11 started out like any other day -- a workout in the first-floor weight room of their dorm -- but unbeknownst to the women of Team Denso, nothing could have prepared them for what came next.
"All of a sudden, one of the girls spotted the clock shaking and called our attention to the movement of the clock and weights," said Canney via email. "It wasn't the quick shaking like I've experienced before. The closest thing I can compare it to was being on a rocky boat. Everything was swaying back and forth at a pretty fast pace, and it was really difficult to maintain your balance because the swaying was so strong."
The women ran out of the weight room and gathered together on a nearby field to keep away from falling objects. As teammates became visibly upset and frantically checked their phones for information, Canney could only stand by and wait in fearful anticipation, unable to understand and communicate in Japanese. Eventually, she and the rest of the world would learn that the swaying she felt inside the weight room was the beginning of one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in world history; Japan had been devastated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake -- one of only five ever recorded -- which then unleashed a deadly tsunami near the town of Sendai.
"Once it was safe, we went inside to watch the news and contact our families, but a couple girls couldn't get a hold of their families and friends," said Canney. "It was an internalized panic and fear that you could sense in the entire room as we sat and watched the Sendai Airport get engulfed by water."
North of Tokyo, Lappin and Team Honda had just begun to warm up their arms for practice in Mooka when the ground began to shake. A southern California-native, Lappin remembers the earthquake initially feeling somewhat typical of those she had experienced growing up. Only seconds later, however, the entire field began to sway like nothing she had previously encountered before.
"You could see and hear the leaves on the trees moving. We were right across the street from the Honda [Motor Company] parts factory, and you could hear the metal factory doors swinging," said Lappin, her voice slow and deliberate. "We all ran out to the middle of the field and were huddled down on the ground, pretty terrified. It was probably the scariest thing I've ever felt. It seemed like forever, and it was so aggressive. It was a good minute of swaying and then it would slow down a little bit and start to settle, and then it would start swaying again for another minute. The girls were yelling in Japanese and I was yelling in English, and we were literally squatting on the ground grabbing onto each other and waiting for it to end," she said.
Once the earthquake subsided, Lappin and her teammates were evacuated to a close-by parking lot with every other Honda factory worker and employee, where they endured equally intense aftershocks every two to five minutes for over an hour. When the women were finally able to return to their apartment to gather a few belongings, they found the power was out in almost the entire prefecture and their building was in shambles. The team began preparing to sleep in cars until word was sent that a bus would be coming for them to stay in overnight. It was there that Lappin first saw images of the incredible devastation.
"I couldn't understand [the television on the bus], obviously, but the pictures and video footage spoke for themselves. At that point, I just thought it was unbelievable. First of all, it was just..."
Lappin's voice trailed off as she struggled under the emotion and memories of the tragedy she had watched and endured. "It was just so sad," she continued, "Such an upsetting thing to happen for that many people -- and then, what were the chances that I was there?"
Her question hung ominously in the air for several moments, as we both considered the possibilities of what could've been.
"We were lucky that we weren't close enough to the coast to get hit by the tsunami," she said with a sense of gratitude that could only come from one who had experienced the disaster from such a unique vantage point. "We were all safe, and we had each other."
Over the next week, both teams attempted to practice until the news broke of radiation leaks in several nuclear power reactors as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. It was then that Lappin, Canney and all other American players learned they were being sent back to the United States. Lappin and Team Honda had become the closest team in the league in proximity to the radiation; a mere 83 miles from the Daiichi nuclear power plant, while Canney and Team Denso were 272 miles away from the Fukushima plant.
Exactly one week after the earthquake had occurred, Lappin flew back home to Los Angeles. Canney followed suit a day later and returned to Chicago. Though they were grateful to be safely home, the two women found it incredibly difficult to leave the teammates that had become friends and the organizations they had bonded with as a result of the disaster. They were expected to keep up with their training in hopes of returning to Japan as soon as was reasonably possible.
Canney was home for just one week when it was deemed safe enough for her to travel back overseas. She returned to Japan on March 29 and quickly got back to practicing and scrimmaging with Team Denso in preparation for league play. Lappin would ultimately make the decision not to return for the first half of the league's split season but continues to have the utmost respect and admiration for the group of women that she was a part of during her time in Japan.
"The girls were amazing and took care of me and took care of each other. I could not have been in a better country or culture when disaster struck," Lappin said.
As Canney, Team Denso and the rest of the league continued to prepare in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunamis, there was talk of delaying their 2011 season. Opening day of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPBL) had already been postponed by two weeks with the damage done to several stadiums by the disaster, and facilities were looking at having to conserve energy in order to host night games. The NPBL was forced to schedule more day games in order to accommodate the worsening power shortages, and the postponement of their season put the start of softball's into question as well.
Against high odds, however, the Japan Softball League was able to hold opening weekend April 9-10 -- as scheduled -- at the Nagoya Dome in Nagoya, located just north of Kariya. All 12 teams were present, and crowds of 8,000 to 10,000 flocked to the Dome to cheer on their respective squads. Many fans received free tickets to the games as a gift from the league, and fundraisers were held the entire weekend to raise money for relief efforts in Northern Japan. Ironically, Canney and Team Denso earned their first league win over Honda at the Dome, playing with the utmost passion and heart that Canney says comes from recognizing how fortunate they are to still have the opportunity to play.
"It was such an honor and an uplifting two days to play in that dome! Each of the 12 teams in our league were there, and the support of each company was tremendous," she said. "Since the earthquake, it has been great to go out and battle as a team in games. There are still some weird moments for us when thinking about the fact that there are still aftershocks and radiation problems, and it can be difficult to focus on the small things of softball when you know there are major problems and people's lives at stake in the rest of the country. Our biggest contribution to the rest of Japan is to focus every day on getting better and to lift their spirits by playing with extra positive energy."
Team Denso is currently 2-1 against league opponents and will play a total of 11 games by the end of May before wrapping up the first half of their split season. Before the first pitch of every contest, Canney says, they will continue to hold a moment of silence to respect and honor the lives of those who were lost in the earthquake and tsunami.
In recent weeks, the team has been putting much of their energy towards coming alongside the harder-hit teams in Northern Japan. Each and every team in the Japanese Softball League have been collecting clothes, softball gear and signed balls and posters to donate to those collegiate and high school teams that have had to cancel their seasons or lost a lot of their facilities and gear.
"Everyone within the country is doing what they can and attempting to recover lost people and items washed away in the tsunami. It is so inspiring to see everyone come together in this time of need," said Canney.
[Editor's note: In addition to Canney and Lappin, former Wildcat All-Americans Tammy Williams and Garland Cooper also have competed in Japan's Women's Softball League in recent years, and their thoughts continue to be with their former teammates overseas. Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments section of Kristin's Schark Bytes blog.]