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Thursday, April 12, 2007
Welcome to Red Sox Nation, Dice-K

By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2

The classic 1950 movie "Rashomon" chronicles the story of one seminal event, told from several different points of view. The 88-minute masterpiece was written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, the best Japanese filmmaker of all time and maybe the best filmmaker ever, period. With Daisuke Matsuzaka taking the mound for his first start at Fenway Park last night, and all of Japan waiting eagerly for the first matchup between Matsuzaka and fellow Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki, we paid tribute to the event, Rashomon style. Reporting from Seattle is die-hard Mariners fan Derek Zumsteg. Reporting from Section 29 in Fenway Park is Page 2 contributor Jonah Keri.

Derek Zumsteg: Live! From Seattle

Live! From Fenway Park
By Jonah Keri
BOSTON -- One of the greatest things about baseball is that every so often, no matter how long you've been a fan, you see something you've never seen before. I've been to hundreds and hundreds of games, in nearly every major league stadium. Never, through all those years, have I seen every single seat in the house full before the first pitch. And never, in all those games, have I seen every single fan in a sold-out stadium stand and cheer throughout the first at-bat of the game.

Of course, all those other games didn't pit the two greatest Japanese imports in MLB history, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki, against each other. When the Red Sox paid more than $100 million for Dice-K's services in the offseason, then watched him dominate the Royals in his first start, you knew his first home start would generate huge excitement.

Live with the Sports Guy

Bill Simmons joins Doug Gottlieb as Felix Hernandez takes a no-hitter into the eighth inning versus the Red Sox.

Outside the stadium before the game, there were language school students handing out translations of various baseball terms (Kaibutsu, Matsuzaka's nickname, means "monster"). Fans arrived in droves well before game time, bustling to get in well before the first pitch. A few early adopters wore red paper Diceheads, with every bit as much zeal as Favre fans wear Cheeseheads. It was awesome. It was madness.

Inside, just as Matsuzaka wound up to throw the first pitch to Ichiro to lead off the game, the entire stadium erupted in flashbulbs. I saw a Cubs-Cardinals game in 1999 in which McGwire and Sosa both homered, and the stadium was packed. The flashes that went off when either batter came to the plate looked like the scattered snaps of a few Little Leaguers' parents compared to Dice-K's first pitch to Ichiro (a strike). When Ichiro finally grounded back to the mound, the crowd erupted like the Sox had won their second World Series title in 89 years.

As the game wore on, it was Matsuzaka's mound opponent, Felix Hernandez, conjuring up images of Little League, the big kid with the early growth spurt making his helpless opponents look bad, again and again. And that's what Hernandez is. Despite his courtly "King Felix" nickname (bestowed on him by the Felix-loving crowd at USSMariner.com), Hernandez just turned 21 over the weekend. He's barely allowed to grab a postgame beer, let alone make monkeys out of one of the best lineups in baseball.

But that's just what he did. Hernandez painted the corners all night with his 95 mph fastball. When he'd get ahead in the count (which was often), he'd throw his ridiculous curve, the one that made several Red Sox hitters look terrible. At first, Fenway fans were merely frustrated. After looking unhittable against Kansas City last week, Dice-K hung a bunch of sliders to Mariners hitters, with ugly results. Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima, the forgotten Japanese star in this game, whacked two doubles to left on Matsuzaka hangers. By the time the dust settled in the fifth, the Mariners had taken a 3-0 lead. No one on the Red Sox -- not Manny, Ortiz or anyone else -- had managed a single hit.

Normally, when an opposing pitcher has a no-hitter going, the stadium fills with tension as the game wears on. Fenway was brimming with that tension last night. Only it didn't feel like the usual mix of pleading with the home team to get a hit and nervously wondering if you could be seeing history in the making. Fans were desperately trying to inspire the Sox to break the no-no, put a few on base, get Big Papi to the plate, and send this Hernandez bum back to Seattle with a loss. By the time we reached the seventh, King Felix had still held the Sox hitless and Fenway was getting antsier and angrier. One drunken fan two rows back, who entertained our section all game long, had the line of the night: "This one time, I went to a Red Sox game, and we got a hit!"

When J.D. Drew came up to start the bottom of the eighth, everyone was back on their feet, cheering and yelling. But no one seemed to be pulling for Hernandez to give them a story they'd never forget. They were begging Drew to knock one through the box, erase the no-no, and start a rally that would lead to a Sox win. On the first pitch, they got their wish, or at least part of it. Drew's solid single up the middle ended Hernandez's no-hitter quest six outs short.

Listening to the thunderous ovation that ensued, there must have been some pockets of appreciation for Hernandez's amazing performance in there somewhere. But you couldn't help but detect a sense of schadenfreude from the 36,630 in attendance. The psyche-up powers of "Sweet Caroline" aside, the stadium noise was much louder, even angrier than you'd expect from a single hit, more celebratory that you'd imagine after a great pitcher was denied his spot in the record book. I saw forgettable Phillies pitcher Tommy Greene throw an unlikely no-hitter against the Expos in 1991. By the eighth inning of that game, almost everyone in the stadium was actively pulling for the no-no. Not so this time. If anything, the opposite was true.

Does that make the Fenway faithful a bunch of bad fans? Depends on how you look at it. The overriding theme of the night was an unbending loyalty to the Sox, no matter who's pitching or what the circumstances are. Shouldn't fans support their team above all else, no matter what? It's hard to imagine any fans staying truer to their team than Red Sox fans do.

And as for King Felix? On the final pitch of the game, facing Kevin Youkilis, Hernandez threw a hook so nasty that it made one of the smartest, most patient hitters in the game look like he should retire. At that moment, you could just picture the postgame callers on WEEI, wondering aloud if the Sox should trade Coco Crisp and a couple of minor leaguers for that Hernandez kid.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can reach him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.