Ten years and one day after losing his father and grandparents in the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, flame-throwing 19-year-old Roki Sasaki will make his long-awaited debut in a pro game, Hochi Shimbun‘s Miho Odawara wrote Thursday.
“Ten years is a boundary marker, but every year it’s an unforgettable day for me,” said Sasaki, who was moved to the safety of higher ground with his third grade classmates.
“Ten years doesn’t make it any more special to me than it is every year.”
His hometown, Rikuzentakata City, on Iwate’s rugged Pacific Coast, had a population of 23,302 at the time of Japan’s 2010 census, but more than 1,750 were declared missing or dead as a result of the disaster.
Sasaki and his mother and two siblings took refuge in an home for the aged.
“I didn’t know exactly when life would return to normal,” Sasaki said. “I felt that was just extremely scary. It makes you appreciate every day, while wanting to live life to its fullest.”
He found baseball as a fourth grader after moving to his father’s hometown, neighboring Ofunato City.
“I was happiest playing baseball,” he said. “Because I could lose myself for stretches of time, I felt I was able to give my best even through hard times and heartbreaking times.”
Sasaki, whose fastball was clocked at over 100 mph in a May 2019 national under-18 training camp, signed with the Lotte Marines that autumn after the club won his negotiating rights in a draft-day lottery.
Since that training camp, the lanky right-hander, who throws with an unbelievably loose motion, has made more headlines for when he didn’t pitch than when he did.
After pitching his high school into the final of Iwate Prefecture’s 2019 tournament, Ofunato High School’s final qualifying game for the national championships, Sasaki was sidelined in the final to protect his arm — a move that attracted both widespread praise and intense criticism.
His high school coach, a former independent minor league player who had toiled in the States. After having Sasaki’s bone density tested, he declared the youngster’s bones were not yet mature and took a more careful approach with his star than many of his peers might.
The same pattern has transpired as a pro. The Marines, whose manager, Tadahito Iguchi, and pitching coach, Masato Yoshii, both played in the majors, have shown great caution regarding Sasaki’s arm. Although they have been silent on the details, there have been occasional comments about the youngster’s ability to recover quickly enough from throwing sessions. Thus he went the entire 2020 season and this year’s spring training throwing nothing but bullpens, simulated games and BP.
In preparation for his “debut,” Sasaki threw a 27-pitch bullpen at Lotte’s Zozo Marine Stadium.
“More than saying I won’t give up and I’ll do my best, I want to be able to show people how I play ball,” Sasaki said.