Kokubo urges Samurai Japan to pay fitting tribute

(All smiles: Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo shakes hands with Europe counterpart Janssen on Monday at Chiba’s QVC Marine Field.)Kyodo

CHIBA – Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said Monday that this week’s games against Europe are important for both his players and as a reminder of the disaster that struck the Tohoku region four years ago.
“It’s only March, but this autumn we’re going to have the Premier 12, and we want to make the most of having the national team assembled and build toward that,” Kokubo told a press conference at Chiba’s QVC Marine Field.
The teams will play two games at Tokyo Dome starting on Tuesday, with Wednesday’s game taking place on the fourth anniversary of the Tohoku disaster.
“It’s important to remember those affected by the disaster,” Kokubo said. “We haven’t forgotten the huge support we received from Europe and we want to show our gratitude. We are playing baseball, but we can show our appreciation by how we carry ourselves on the field. Playing baseball doesn’t help in concrete terms, but we can show good spirit and perhaps lighten some people’s hearts.
“It’s been four years, but there are so many areas that have not completely recovered. It’s important to get that message to the players that further efforts are necessary.”
Europe manager Steve Janssen visited the coast of Fukushima Prefecture on Friday afternoon and said it left an impact on him.
“In Europe, we heard about the nuclear disaster, but not so much about the human side,” he said. “Out there are broken families. Hopefully sports can bring people together and bring some strength to those people affected. Our hearts, from every coach and every player, are with the Japanese people out there.”
On the field, he said his team is fit and ready to go despite not being able to practice outdoors much or play a warm-up game due to bad weather.
“This is a great opportunity,” he said of playing the world’s top-ranked national side. “To be No. 1 you have to have fantastic strength and a fantastic program. But in Japan, more important is the baseball culture, the stadiums, the facilities. And, perhaps, here are the best fans in the world.”
Italy international Alessandro Maestri, who pitches for the Orix Buffaloes, said he is pleased that players from Europe can experience Japanese baseball’s unique character.
“I’m just happy that European baseball is getting a chance to see the atmosphere that you get, and I’m talking about the fans. So I think it’s going to be very interesting for us to compete against these guys.”
Kokubo said the unusual matchup is a special treat for Japanese fans.
“People here are not that familiar with European baseball, so that should be fun,” Kokubo said. “But my guys will do their best to meet the expectations of the fans and make the games worth seeing.
“We’ve been building toward the season in spring camps and now in preseason games. Opening Day is still more than two weeks away, so we’re not in peak form, but we will be ready to give all we have at this stage.”
Hiroshima Carp right-hander Daichi Osera, who will start Game 1, said wearing the national flag on one’s uniform brings with it an obligation.
“You wear the Hinomaru and you know you have to do your utmost to get results,” he said. “You can’t give up.”