Softball stars feel connected to rebuilding Japan

SULPHUR, La. -- Lauren Lappin rarely struggles to communicate.

As seven of the best sluggers in National Pro Fastpitch duel in the league's version of the home run derby, Lappin's voice rings out even as the lingering heat and humidity seem to have suffocated sound on the eve of the playoffs. The rest of the league's playing population lounges in the stands, texting or catching up with old college teammates. Lappin is on her feet, lending full-throated support to teammates in the contest, not to mention casting occasional loud aspersions about the legality of the bats used by anyone else.

Nobody seems to take offense or be particularly surprised. The former Olympian is known as a person who would move heaven and earth to lend anyone a hand, so if her voice carries well beyond the 330-plus feet of the winning blast in the distance portion of the derby, that's just Lappin.

But when the ground started moving on March 11, as a magnitude 8.9 earthquake shook Japan, even Lappin was initially at a loss for words.

"We were warming up our arms, and all of a sudden the ground starts to shake," Lappin said, recalling the Japanese pro team on which she played. "And Japanese players are always moving, they're always talking, so they were playing catch, they were very active, so I felt it and looked around and no one else had reacted yet. I catch the ball again, and then people are starting to look around, and figure out that it's an earthquake.

"It started off [the same] as any strong California earthquake that I grew up with. And then all of a sudden, it intensified -- it went from shaking to rolling. We all ran to the middle of the field and just kind of waited it out."

In the wrong place at the wrong time, amid the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in a nation's history, Lappin and other Americans playing softball in Japan, including former Olympians Monica Abbott, Cat Osterman and Natasha Watley, witnessed the best of a culture's character. Through pictures, gestures, observation and broken or brokered conversations, a professional opportunity became a life experience.

"Their spirits were just so incredible; I don't know another way to say it," said Megan Willis, who arrived to play for the Toyota team just four days after the earthquake. "I feel like I was crying when they said that they had lost their house -- a team member had lost their house -- but she was kind of smiling and happy, because her parents were alive. That's what they had, and that's what they had to build on."

Lappin had been in Japan for about 48 hours when the earthquake hit. She was playing for the Honda team, based just over 100 miles from the epicenter, and around 80 miles from the now-infamous Fukushima nuclear power facility that was compromised by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

Not allowed to stay in the apartments provided for them that first night, the players ended up sleeping in a bus after the cafeteria at the Honda facility was deemed potentially unsafe. After a week, the potential radiation dangers from the nearby Fukushima facility caused enough alarm that Lappin returned to the U.S. rather than complete the first half of the season. Despite concern from her mom, Lappin will soon return to Japan for the second half.

She has teammates to get back to.

Time seems to run at a different rate during a crisis, with an hour not always easily discernible from a day or a week. Lappin hadn't been part of the Honda team for long, as measured on an absolute scale. But she quickly felt the emotion after watching a teammate collapse in tears after learning of the safety of a boyfriend who'd been missing for 24 hours after the earthquake. She quickly came to understand her Japanese teammates in a way that months of turning double plays and celebrating home runs cannot match.

"The complexity of the situation really bonded us," Lappin said. "I bonded with those girls -- we bonded because of the situation. It really brought us together, and it really showed me what their culture is about. They're very stoic, but they're so respectful and caring. It's amazing. They wanted me to have first choice of everything because I was in an unfamiliar place."

She's not alone. Willis will return to Japan for the second half of the season, as will a number of Americans looking to keep playing beyond the NPF summer season. They go for professional reasons. And like anyone traveling, they won't return home with a complete understanding of a place, or a comprehensive grasp of every ramification of a disaster that will be felt in Japan for years, if not generations.

p>"It was pretty amazing to watch a country just not panic," Willis said. "Over here, the only thing I can compare it to would be Katrina, and it was so much different. You hear of looting and just kind of neighbors going against one another, where there [in Japan], they're helping one another, they're lining up in lines."

There are plenty of international rivalries in women's sports, be it against Australia in basketball or Brazil in beach volleyball, but the International Olympic Committee's apparent disregard notwithstanding, few are as good as the one between the United States and Japan in softball. That history should have made rooting interest more pronounced for some of the former American softball Olympians, who gathered to watch their soccer counterparts play Japan in the World Cup final. And cheer for Team USA they did, but not without finding part of themselves remembering what they had seen in Japan

"It was tough to see us lose," Lappin said. "But it was amazing to see Japan win after such an emotional and difficult year. The culture is amazing, the people … "

She trailed off for a moment. Sometimes you don't need words to communicate.

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