Thursday, April 5, 2007
Roll of the Daisuke
By Bill Simmons
When my editors asked me to keep a running diary of Daisuke Matsuzaka's first Red Sox start, I wasn't enthused about the idea. After all, the game was taking place in Kansas City and I live in Los Angeles. If I couldn't sit at the Kauffman Stadium press box and write down mundane tidbits while sitting at a crammed table with 20 other sportswriters, the column just wouldn't feel credible.
"If I did this from home," I told them, "I'd just feel like some guy or gal sitting on the couch making fun of the play-by-play announcer and bemoaning commercials."
"But wait, that's why it would be entertaining," they argued.
Oh, yeah. I forgot. So screw it, here's a running diary of Dice's first start:
11:00 AM (PT) -- You have to love DirecTV. They charge you nearly 200 bucks for the Extra Innings package, then they stick you with the opposing team's announcers for your favorite team's road games. Hence, I get to spend the next three hours with KC announcers Bob Davis and Paul Splittorff (combined age: 245 years old). Let's hope Bob doesn't have flashbacks to World War II when he's watching Dice pitch.
11:03 -- Had to mention this: Three days ago, the Royals pulled off an emotional Opening Day win, replete with standing O's for Alex Gordon, Gil Meche and the final out, then there was an off day and everyone in KC spent the next 36 hours talking about how excited they were about the 2007 Royals. Now they're headed for their second loss in 18 hours and we're a week away from Joe Posnanski's first "Why us? Why? Why?????" column, which is up there with the Masters, the NBA playoffs, Tax Day and tree pollen as the five absolute certainties every April. But hey, for 36 hours ... they had something special going on there. Let there be no doubt.
11:06 -- Terry Francona chews gum and stares off into the distance. That may have been stock footage. Can't be sure.
11:08 -- Funny shot of about 10,000 photographers crammed into a 10-by-12 photo booth next to the third-base dugout. That's followed by a scouting report for Dice-K that tells us that he has two fastballs (four- and two-seam) and five other pitches he can throw for strikes (slider, cutter, changeup, curve, split-finger). In other words, he has seven more pitches than Joel Pineiro.
11:10 -- Our first look at Kansas City starter: Zack Greinke, whose career nearly got derailed by an anxiety disorder last season. That's really the difference between the Sox and Royals in a nutshell: When the Sox need a No. 3 starter, they can just say "screw it" and spend $103 million on the best Japanese pitcher alive. When the Royals need a No. 3 starter, they roll the dice with a guy battling an anxiety disorder. These are the things that happen when a professional sports league decides against a salary cap.
11:14 -- I don't know if David Ortiz's beard can be described, but let's give it a whirl: it looks like George Lucas' beard, only if the section under his lower lip was shaved into a "W." Meanwhile, Kevin Youkilis has a fu manchu on steroids (it looks like the one on Stallone's last arm-wrestling rival in "Over The Top"), and Manny Ramirez has the Miami Vice beard going on his cheeks and upper lip, only he grew out the hair on his chin to look like a billy goat. I feel like these guys are having a "Who can grow the uglier facial hair contest?" and they're just not telling us about it.
11:17 -- Manny bangs home a two-out RBI double off the right-field wall ... with help from converted third baseman Mark Teahen, who handled that play like a token female in a friendly office softball game. 1-0, Red Sox.
11:19 -- You're not gonna believe this, but J.D. Drew took a called third strike to end the inning.
(Note: Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals fans everywhere are nodding and saying, "Yup ... been there, done that.")
11:21 -- Never seen this before: 20-25 photographers snapping shots behind home plate of Dice's warmup pitches. This is gonna be a weird season. If you don't think one of the grizzled Boston media people will punch one of these photographers in the face over the next five months, you're kidding yourself.
11:22 -- One thing about Dice as we watch him warm up and strut around the mound: the dude definitely has charisma. There's no question. The way he carries himself, the big smile, the deliberate windup, even the way he stands on the mound waiting for the signal ... just a confident dude. Anyway, here's KC's lineup today: David DeJesus, Esteban German (a Bill Simmons approved fantasy sleeper!), Mark Teahen, Emil Brown, Alex Gordon, Ryan Shealy, Ross Gload, John Buck, Tony Pena Jr. You get what you pay for.
11:25 -- DeJesus lines an opening single to center (so long, no-hitter!), followed by German forcing him out at second. By the way, I'm down with the KC guys comparing Dice's style to David Cone. (Good call. He's like David Cone on acid.) As a reward, I'm not making a joke about Bob Davis pounding Ensure for at least four more innings.
11:28 -- Oy. Dice takes a TON of time between pitches. One of my all-time sports pet peeves. He's like the Japanese Jeff Gray. Fortunately, he gets a double play chopper from Emil Brown (hard fastball in on the hands) to end the first. That's it, I'm going online to learn the Japanese phrase for "speed it up, please."
11:29 -- "Soukou nanitozo." That was easy.
11:32 -- Forgot to mention this: Growing up, I loved when the Sox played in Kansas City because of the magnificent waterfall in center field. I'd watch every Sox-Royals game hoping someone would strike a homer to dead center because that meant we'd see the waterfall, the same way I watched every Sox-Brewers game hoping someone would homer and we'd see Bernie Brewer go down his slide. And I guess my point is this ... there really wasn't a lot happening for kids in the '70s. You have to believe me.
11:35 -- Jason Varitek feebly flies out to left. You know those movie scenes where two hitmen have to dump a dead body somewhere, so they ride a boat out into the middle of the ocean and swing the body overboard ... only the thing is so cumbersome, as they're swinging the body, they nearly fall overboard into the water with it? That's what Varitek's swings have looked like this season. If you have him on your fantasy team, lower your 2007 expectations to the ".229, 16 HRs, 51 RBIs" range.
11:38 -- Coco Crisp strikes out looking, followed by a weak grounder by Dustin Pedroia to end the inning. The bottom third of Boston's order could reach "screw it, maybe I'll walk the dogs around the block over sitting through these three guys again" levels by late April.
11:42 -- Wait a second, new Royals closer Octavio Dotel went on the DL and might miss the first three weeks of the season? You're kidding me! This is shocking! The guy's normally a rock! How does this happen????
11:46 -- Three up, three down for Dice in the second ... and he cut it down to 15-16 seconds between pitches. Either he's settling into a groove, or Tek told him to soukou nanitozo. It's one or the other.
11:48 -- All right, I don't know what's more exciting: Our new ace looking relatively unhittable, or Perez Hilton reporting that there's a sex tape coming out featuring LC from "The Hills." One year ago, if you had to place odds on someone from "The Hills" appearing in a sex tape, Heidi would have been a (-750) money line favorite over LC. This is really like Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson all over again. What a day.
11:50 -- Gordon boots a leadoff grounder from Julio Lugo to start the third. I'm getting the sinking feeling that we'll see the following ESPN.com headline in about six weeks: "ROYALS SEND GORDON TO TRIPLE-A, REGRET PUTTING SO MUCH PRESSURE ON HIM."
11:55 -- Infield single for Manny. Two on, two out. Also, Lugo is on pace to shatter Trot Nixon's record for "Most times a Red Sox player fervently grabbed his cup in one game to the point that you almost wanted somebody to ask him, 'Yo, is everything OK down there?'" I'd tell you more, but J.D. Drew just hit a five-foot grounder to end the inning.
12:03 -- Three up, three down for Dice in the third. He's cruising at this point (strikeout, 20-foot grounder, popout) and looks legitimately bored.
OK, time for my impression of every exchange between Dice and Varitek when 'Tek comes to the mound:
Tek (loudly): ARE ... YOU ... OK?
Tek: YOU ... ARE ... DOING ... GREAT!
Dice (smiling): Yes.
(Two seconds of awkward silence.)
Tek: OK ... BYE!
(Jogs back to home plate as Dice continues to smile.)
12:08 -- Mike Lowell leads off the fourth with a double off the left-field wall ... with help from a mistimed jump by Ross Gload. (I'm gonna go out on a limb and call outfield defense a problem for the Royals this season.) Fortunately for KC, the next three batters are Varitek, Crisp and Pedroia. Take a guess how the rest of the inning played out.
(Here's a hint: Badly.)
12:20 -- Dice strikes out the side in the fourth. With ease. He's mowed down 10 straight and hasn't given up a hit since DeJesus's leadoff single in the first. I'd tell you more, but I have to change my pants.
(Note: Watching Dice pitch is like watching somebody whip a Whiffleball around on a windy day: The ball is moving, diving, dropping, slicing ... and every once in awhile, he'll mix in a 94-mph fastball on the corners. How the hell do you hit this guy? The Royals look overmatched and confused. Well, even more than usual.)
12:25 -- Apparently there's a fast-food place in the KC area called Sonic: They just ran an ad for the "sausage and gravy toaster sandwich" that concluded with the narrator saying, "Everything you love for breakfast, covered in gravy." And people wonder why the terrorists hate us.
12:27 -- Lugo slaps a leadoff double down the right-field line, then celebrates the event with a belt grab, followed by a violent crotch pull with both hands. We need to start naming Lugo's various crotch pulls the way figure skaters name their jumps. Let's call that one a "double ballchow."
12:29 -- Lugo steals third and scurries home on a throwing error from John Buck. 2-0, Red Sox. You know what's sad? I was genuinely disappointed the KC station cut away right before Lugo's celebratory crotch pull. I was ready to name it and everything. That sucked.
12:31 -- Greinke (5 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K's) gets out of the rest of the fifth unscathed, even striking out Big Papi for the third time. I spent the inning researching celebs who have suffered from anxiety disorders: It's a long list that includes Johnny Depp, Naomi Campbell, David Bowie, Sally Field, Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey, John Madden, Burt Reynolds, Willard Scott, the lady who plays Carmela Soprano, Barbara Bush, Robin Quivers, and yes, John Cougar Mellancamp.
This is ouuuuuuuuuuur ... anxiety.
12:36 -- Gordon singles for his first major league hit. That's one of my favorite things about baseball: it's the only sport where somebody can accomplish something relatively mundane for the first time, and 50 years later, they'll remember everything about that moment -- who was playing, who was pitching, what the pitch was, and exactly what happened. No other sport can say that. Yes, I'm babbling.
12:47 -- I'll admit it: Every time J.D. Drew runs full speed after a flyball, it's terrifying -- I keep expecting one of his limbs to rip off or something. Will that feeling ever go away, or does it just fester all season? I hope it goes away. Meanwhile, Dice needs 26 pitches (and the blessing of Tony Pena Jr. batting with two guys on and two outs) to get out of a fifth-inning jam. He's thrown 78 pitches through five innings ... 222 away from reaching today's pitch limit. 2-0, Sox.
12:51 -- The KC channel returns from commercial by showing a "TO ADVERTISE ON RRN" graphic along with their sales people (Tony Wresinger and Bob Steigler) and a phone number. Small-market baseball ... feel the excitement!
12:58 -- The Sox waste another leadoff hit (a gorgeous opposite-field double from Drew), with the inning ending on a Crisp strikeout. What's the antonym of confidence? Diffidence? That's how I feel when Crisp comes up in a big spot. Completely, totally, utterly diffident.
12:59 -- Leadoff home run, David DeJesus. 2-1, Sox. That was the rare fastball from Dice that didn't move. More importantly, Davis and Splittorff had to wake up for a few seconds. Sorry we disturbed your canasta game, guys. Go back to what you were doing.
1:03 -- Well, Dice's Oden-esque demeanor never changed during an active sixth that included the homer, two more hits and a shaky caught stealing call on German ... if anything, he seemed bored by the whole thing. Also, Splittorff called him "Suzaka." It was only a matter of time. Anyway, I am WILDLY impressed by Dice. He's out of the same mold as Tiger, Kobe and Phil Ivey -- all business, totally methodical, more than a little cocky. You can't shake him.
1:11 -- Bob Davis attempts his first joke of the day: "The No. 9 hitter, Dustin Pedroia, then the top of the order, Lugo and Youkilis. (Prolonged pause while he debates the joke. And then...) Sounds like a law firm -- Pedroia, Lugo and Youkilis, Limited."
(The best part: Not even a forced chuckle from Splittorff. Nothing. Just dead silence.)
1:14 -- Pedroia singles to start the seventh. Instead of bunting him over (God forbid), Lugo hits into a "room service" double play (Bob's words), quickly followed by Yook flying out on the first pitch to end the inning. Way to work the pitch count, fellas.
One silver lining: Lugo debuted a new crotch grab at the plate -- a full tug with the left hand, followed by a hesitation, then a second tug with the left hand. Let's call that the "hesitation ballchow."
1:16 -- Greinke's final line: Seven innings, 101 pitches, eight hits, seven K's, one walk, one earned run, one e-mail from the only Royals fan I know (my friend Connor) that read, "Grienke's outing will be overshadowed by Dice-K mania, but I am very optimistic now that he is over his anxiety."
(Small-market baseball ... feel the excitement!)
1:22 -- Three up, three down for Dice in the seventh. His final line: seven innings, 108 pitches, six hits, one run, one walk, 10 K's, 200 photographers, tons of goofy-looking pitches that broke in a variety of ways, four awkward exchanges with Varitek that desperately needed a translator, two expressions (blank and happy), approximately 40-45 defensive/awkward/confused swings from Royals hitters. All in all, I'm giving that performance an A-quintuple-plus. Very enjoyable. Not as overpowering as Pedro in his prime, but consistently mesmerizing.
1:32 -- Here's what I missed by not getting NESN's broadcast, courtesy of Chris M. in Boston: "Don't know if you just caught it but there was a hilarious exchange between Dice-K and Manny right after Dice-K finished his day. As Dice was going down the dugout getting the high-fives and fist pounds from the other Sox players, Dice came to Manny who gave him a fist pound then a combination of a bow and a karate chop while sitting on the bench. I hope this will be on YouTube. Just a typical Manny moment."
(I hate you, DirecTV. I hate you.)
1:36 -- The Sox grab two insurance runs in the eighth thanks to Big Papi (double), Joel Peralta (wild pitch to score a run), Alex Gordon (error) and Coco Crisp (a shocking RBI single!). And guess what else that inning featured? Not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE separate crotch grabs from Julio Lugo (who ended the inning with a groundout).
You know what? Let's just fast-forward to the finish because I'm about to pass out from Splittorff and Davis: J.C. Romero retired the Royals in the eighth, then Jonathan Papelbon smeared the Royals (three batters, two K's) in the ninth for his first save. Our final score: Sox 4, Royals 1. Our winner: Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Bikkuri, Yankee fans. Bikkuri.
(That means "be frightened" in Japanese.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.