TOKYO -- The high school baseball players lined up in straight rows on the outfield grass with almost military precision, their heads bowed in silent prayer.
Shinsuke Noyama, a team captain chosen to represent all the competitors at an opening ceremony for last week's tournament, stood at a microphone with dignity and conviction, and he spoke movingly about the 1995 earthquake that killed 6,400 people in Kobe, Japan.
"We were born 16 years ago, in the year of the great Kobe earthquake," Noyama said, his face grim. "Today, in the great east Japan earthquake, many precious lives have been lost, and our souls are filled with sorrow."Twice a year, high school baseball teams compete at Koshien Stadium outside Kobe in nationally televised tournaments that rivet the country. This year is no different -- except that Japan is mourning thousands of dead from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast.
Baseball, long popular in Japan, rallied the country after World War II, providing a welcome distraction while serving as a symbol of the cooperation, hard work, and self-sacrifice needed to rebuild the devastated land.
It could be expected to play a similar role in the latest disaster, but an ugly squabble over whether to postpone opening day has smeared the image of the professional game.
Now the nation is turning elsewhere for some hope: adolescents who play baseball with a seriousness and integrity sometimes missing from their pro heroes.
Hours after Noyama spoke, his team from Soshi Gakuen high school was eliminated in the first round. But his speech was played over and over on national TV.
"It was much more beautiful than some mediocre politician's speech, this 16-year-old youngster performing so magnificently, with that booming voice," said Akira Kawaii, a children's story writer walking toward Tokyo's Shimbashi train station. "Pro ball is all about money, high school baseball is about passion."
To put Japan's love of high school baseball in perspective, it generates the same kind of excitement as the NCAA college basketball tournament in the United States. It's a reaffirmation of values and identity, an occasion for national bonding, and an expression of nostalgia for the purity and vigor of youth.
To be sure, high school baseball is a big deal for reasons other than national identity: Big bucks are at stake with hawk-eyed scouts looking for hot prospects. Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Ichiro Suzuki -- all now playing in the U.S. major leagues -- first became household names in Japan after memorable performances in high school.
But in Japanese high school baseball, losers attract almost as much attention as winners, and even the no-hopes garner a big chunk of the televised commentary. Fans are touched to see these youths giving their all, with the same palpable sense of purpose, even when they're losing 11-0 in the eighth inning.
The teenage players have at least momentarily taken over the unifying role that the pros carried out after the war. During the opening ceremony, the Tohoku High School team -- based in tsunami-ravaged Miyagi prefecture -- marched onto the field carrying the school banner to a wave of emotional applause.
"The tournament shows you can make sports speak to the needs even of a tragic moment," said William Kelly, a Japan scholar at Yale University. "And professional baseball shows how you can also lose that opportunity."
The discord that has rocked Japan's two professional leagues at a time the country needs unity has shocked the country.
The more powerful Central League balked at postponing its season out of respect for disaster victims, and its Yomiuri Giants -- Japan's most popular team -- insisted it would hold electricity-guzzling night games at a time many families are eating dinner by candlelight because of rolling blackouts.
Fans were outraged. Players hinted at a possible boycott. And the government pressured the Central League to reconsider. The Giants, widely viewed as holding disproportional clout in baseball decision-making, were singled out for accusations of greed and heavy-handedness.
"Are these the circumstances where we should be doing this?" fumed Senichi Hoshino, the charismatic former manager of the Hanshin Tigers, who play at Koshien and are the chief rival of the Tokyo-based Giants.
Early last week, the Central League agreed to postpone the season's start to March 29, and the Giants said they would play more day games and conserve energy during night games. On Thursday, the league caved in completely, postponing its season to April 12 in line with the Pacific League.
But the damage has been done. "These are very unseemly debates," said Yale's Kelly. "Baseball has struck out."
In contrast, the high school players have struck a strong chord. The tournament coincides with another important ritual of youth: school graduation, which in Japan comes in early spring.
In a game at the tournament last week, catcher Takahiro Suzuki lost two front teeth when a wild throw hit him in the face. He left the field for treatment, then came back minutes later to guide his pitcher to the last two outs. The next inning, his lips swollen and the gap in his mouth red with blood, he hit a double that scored the game-winning run.
That spirit may be useful in times of national catastrophe. "Baseball in Japan has some values that it tries to associate with itself," said Kelly, "that turn out at this moment to be the values that people want."