The Internet headlines scream, “OPPONENTS IN AWE OF MATSUZAKA,” and other such exaggerations. Each of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s pitches are broadcast live back to Japan, where millions wake up early or stay up late to watch him in the middle of the night.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Heck, that’s nothing. The Japanese are putting off more than sleep to watch their hero. Between innings of the games he pitched in last year’s World Baseball Classic, water consumption went up 25 percent in Japan.
American fans are caught up, too. They’re buying thousands of No. 18 jerseys, painting their chests, and picking him in the first round of their fantasy-baseball leagues — all for a guy who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the major leagues.
“I’m amazed that every single question revolves around him,” says Zack Greinke, who will start for the Royals in Matsuzaka’s debut this afternoon.
“Everybody’s blowing him up like he has 89 pitches and the gyroball is like Nintendo,” says Mark Grudzielanek.
The world finally gets a glimpse of Matsuzaka in real, major-league competition when the Japanese hero starts for Boston against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Finally, we can begin to separate fact from fiction, myth from legend.
In the months leading up to this afternoon’s debut, millions of people spent millions of hours writing millions of words to figure out who Matsuzaka is and what the baseball world is about to experience.
It’s all done little more than shoot down the urban legend of Matsuzaka’s gyroball — at least, insiders seem pretty sure it’s an urban legend. Guess we’ll have our first real look this afternoon.
In the meantime, what do you actually know about the man introduced by the Red Sox as a natural treasure?
It’s probably best to start at the beginning. Matsuzaka’s odyssey to the major leagues began 12 years ago in San Diego, when Dan Okimoto picked up the local sports page and chuckled at what he saw.
“I had no idea that Larry (Lucchino) was president of the Padres,” Okimoto says. “It really surprised me, so I gave him a call.”
Lucchino and Okimoto knew each other from their days at Princeton, but hadn’t talked for 25 years. This was the summer of 1995, when Hideo Nomo Mania — the original Japanese baseball phenomenon here — was sweeping major-league baseball.
Once they got past the small-talk, Okimoto, who just happens to be a Stanford professor and one of the world’s leading Japanese scholars, asked if Lucchino would be interested in pursuing a star pitcher from Japan.
“Of course,” Lucchino said. “Could you help us?”
Okimoto agreed, and shortly after that conversation he was in a Tokyo airport, waiting for his flight, the televisions blaring the Koshien high school baseball tournament. It is important to know that the Koshien is unlike anything Americans would recognize as an amateur baseball tournament.
The Koshien draws the passion of March Madness, the attention of the Super Bowl, and has the instant star-making ability of “American Idol.”
On that kind of national stage, there on the screen in front of Okimoto, a small pitcher was dominating. He was in the middle of a 17-inning, complete game victory in the quarterfinals. You could feel a legend being created.
Okimoto called his friend immediately.
“Larry,” he said, “you’ve got to come here and see this kid.”
“It’s two weeks before the draft,” Lucchino replied. “There’s just no way.”
“Well,” Okimoto said, “keep his name in mind. Daisuke Matsuzaka. Because surely he will emerge.”
Once Matsuzaka became available to major-league teams, he had established himself as one of the five greatest pitchers in the country’s history — and he was just 26.
The teams that could afford it pledged unprecedented posting fees to Matsuzaka’s Seibu Lions club. The process of signing Matsuzaka had something of a spy novel quality, with hidden airplane tail numbers, top-secret bidding, and international intrigue.
During the Red Sox wooing process, team officials — including Lucchino, now Boston’s president — met him and his representation for dinner. At one point, Okimoto remembers Lucchino asking Matsuzaka, “Are you planning on learning English?”
There was no pause before Matsuzaka responded, “Of course.”
The Red Sox knew then they wanted to unlock the Matsuzaka mystery.
Sohta Kimura is moving to Boston because of Matsuzaka. He covers the Red Sox — i.e., Dice-K — for the Kyodo News and it is his job to know all there is to know about Matsuzaka.
Over lunch this week, he shoots down the notion that Matsuzaka’s personality has been mostly hidden. So you ask what the Japanese media has reported.
“Uh,” he says, pausing to think for a minute or so before laughing and admitting he can’t think of anything.
This is the strange dynamic of Matsuzaka’s celebrity. He is a star of Michael Jordan or Brad Pitt proportions in Japan, and he is the hottest story in major-league baseball here. Yet there is relatively little known about who he is away from the pitching mound.
We know his wife is a fairly famous former sports anchor on Nippon TV. Rumors circulated she was hoping the Yankees would win Matsuzaka’s bidding because New York would be better for her career.
He wore his hair orange as a younger player, which attracted attention and went against Japanese baseball tradition. Matsuzaka has long been more of an individual even among a conformist environment. This contributed to the perception by some that Matsuzaka is a bit arrogant.
For his part, Matsuzaka describes himself as “a boring family guy.” He likes golf, has a 1-year-old daughter, and is quick to smile.
“I found him to be engaging, very polite, quiet, reserved, confident, soft-spoken,” Okimoto says. “He was not the kind of arrogant, rude, full-of-himself kind of guy that big megastars can sometimes be. You would never know sitting at the table that he was a baseball player or a megastar or a legend in Japan.”
Matsuzaka attended Yokohama High, a private school outside of Tokyo. More than 40 pro baseball players have come from there, but Matsuzaka is such a legend they no longer use the mound he used to warm up on.
This was Tiger Woods winning his first Masters by 12 strokes, only if golf was the sport in America like it is in Japan. His rookie year, he struck out Ichiro the first three times he faced him, and after the game, told a riveted and live television audience, “jishin ga kakushin ni kawatta.”
Loosely translated, it means, “My confidence becomes more confidence,” and the saying has since gained legendary status. Sort of Japan’s version of, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Even as a young boy, Matsuzaka dreamed of pitching in the major leagues. He told friends and teammates and coaches of this dream, too, but actually started his high school career as an outfielder with above-average power.
He went 17-5 with a 2.12 ERA last year, his eighth professional season with Seibu and won MVP honors for leading Japan to the WBC championship. There was nothing left for him to accomplish there.
Boston’s $51 million posting fee is three times last year’s payroll for Matsuzaka’s old team — and the Red Sox are paying $52 million more to Dice-K over the next six seasons.
“The scale of the contract does not determine how I play baseball,” he says. “I feel responsibility a little bit, but I am not pressured. I have received a lot of expectations all my life, but I always remembered (the) most important thing for me is to play ball and have fun and I have done so and will keep doing so.
“By doing so, I will meet everybody’s expectations.”
Nobody seems real sure how good Matsuzaka will be. One American League scout who watched him in spring training said, “He’ll struggle with all the adjustments but should be above-average, not great.” Another said, “There is nobody like him here. He could win Cy Young awards, and I mean plural.”
“I think the fans certainly have great expectations for me and I would like to respond in kind,” Matsuzaka said this spring. “But if the fans have a number (of wins), I don’t know what it is. Within myself, there is maybe a baseline for success. I have certain expectations for myself, but as for giving you a hard number, what that might be, that’s just something I can’t do.”
Reports say Matsuzaka throws anywhere from five to eight pitches — unheard of from American pitchers. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek jokes he needs two hands to call a game. Matsuzaka’s strength is his control, and he also has a mid-90s fastball.
“He’s worth every penny,” says Pirates outfielder Chris Duffy, who faced Matsuzaka in spring training. “I’ve never seen a guy throw that many different kinds of pitches and he throws them all for strikes. You don’t know what he’s going to throw next.”
Red Sox coaches have been cramming essential Japanese since Matsuzaka signed. Varitek wears a black armband on his left forearm, similar to those of quarterbacks, with quick translations on them.
Hall of Famer Jim Palmer reportedly told Red Sox owner John Henry that if he knew Matsuzaka was this good, he’d have paid even more. Matsuzaka’s teammates rave about his cool demeanor, that “there’s no sense of butterflies at all,” as Varitek puts it.
“Yeah, he’s the real deal,” says Marty Brown, manager of the Hiroshima Carp in Japan. “Sometimes he’ll be pitching 91, 92, all of a sudden he needs a big out and he’ll throw 95 up there. That’s how Pedro (Martinez) did, that’s the kind of arm he has.
“Will he win 20 games? I wouldn’t bet against him, I’ll be honest. He has to prove himself as a legitimate No. 1 starter. That’s something he’s challenged himself with.”
There is a story in Japan that gains momentum every year. Back in 1930, a team of major-league stars barnstormed through the country.
The Americans won most of the games, but there was one game — one glorious game — where Eiji Sawamura struck out Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in succession.
Connie Mack supposedly tried to sign Sawamura to a major-league contract right after the game, but he didn’t want to leave home. He went 33-10 with a 1.38 ERA as a rookie and pitched seven pro seasons in Japan before enlisting in the Imperial Navy in 1943.
He was killed by a torpedo near the end of World War II, but was inducted in the Japanese baseball Hall of Fame and that country’s version of the Cy Young award is named for him.
It all started with that one game against the American big leaguers.
Today, at Kauffman Stadium, Matsuzaka begins trying to write a legend of his own.
“There’s a great sense of pride in that,” Okimoto says. “If a Japanese pitcher can come in and muffle a lineup of big, power-hitting American batters at the plate, there’s a great sense of pride in that.”
Mark Grudzielanek: “The way you guys are blowing him up, I’d hate to be him, all that pressure on him. He better have a good season or he’s in deep trouble.”
Mark Teahen: “There’s so much hype about him and everything, but for me, whatever. Just another righty.”
Alex Gordon: “Lots of Japanese reporters have come up to me, just because he’s the No. 1 prospect and I’m the No. 2, I guess. I guess I’m excited to see what he’s got.”
To reach Sam Mellinger, national baseball reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4365 or send e-mail to smellinger@ kcstar.com