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Baseball row brews as Japan battles crisis

By Alastair Himmer

TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japanese baseball players' union has hit out at the Central League's decision to start its season on schedule as the country struggles with the aftermath of last week's deadly earthquake.

Thousands died when a 9.0-magnitude quake hit Japan last Friday causing a massive tsunami and badly damaging a nuclear power plant 240-km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, where engineers were still battling to avert a disaster a week later.

"The players' consensus is that it is inappropriate to start the season when we think of those who were killed, still missing and those staying in evacuation shelters. It's just too early."

The Pacific League includes the Rakuten Golden Eagles, whose home city of Sendai was badly hit by the disaster, but the home cities of the Central League clubs escaped largely unscathed.

Nippon Professional Baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato insisted the decision was the correct one.

"We believe it is the duty of baseball to play at a time of such pain to give the people of Japan hope after such a natural disaster," he said.

BASKETBALL CHAOS

Basketball's bj-league will resume this weekend but three teams -- the Sendai 89ers, Tokyo Apache and Saitama Broncos -- will play no more games this season.

"With the electricity blackouts and energy shortages in Tokyo and Saitama (north of the capital), we made the decision not to continue this season," Apache's Azumi Kurita told Reuters.

Most professional sport in Japan has been scrapped amid concerns about the heavy use of electricity, compounded by mounting fears over potential radiation leaks from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

The scheduled March 21-27 Tokyo world figure skating championships was one of the first to be canceled after the quake and initial reports of a possible nuclear crisis.

PLAYER EXODUS

The J.League has suspended all fixtures until further notice. Urawa Reds told Reuters their coach and foreign players had fled Japan.

"Compared to other clubs, our stadium and facilities suffered relatively little damage from the quake," Reds public relations chief Daisuke Maruyama said.

"The manager and coach are in Holland, Australian (Matthew) Spiranovic is in Australia, the Brazilians are in Brazil. We have no idea when the league will restart.

"Of course we are looking at the news reports out of Fukushima too but it's doubtful the J.League will be able to restart on April 2, as was mentioned."

The Japan Football Association (JFA) responded to New Zealand's decision to pull out of an international friendly in Tokyo by announcing a charity match to replace it.

A J.League select team will play the Asian champions in Osaka on March 29 with the proceeds going to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami.

(Additional reporting/writing by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by John O'Brien)

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