- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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Editor's Note: This story appears in the Dec. 4 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Daisuke Matsuzaka smiles and a host of cameras flash. It's a lightning storm inside the ballroom of the Takanawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo, where some 200 journalists are gathered on Nov. 1 for Matsuzaka's "posting," the official announcement that his negotiating rights are up for bid. The 26-year-old Seibu Lions righthander, the best pitcher in Japan and the biggest star in all of Japanese professional sports, sits behind a flower-draped dais, looking nothing like his nickname, The Monster. Appearance is as important as reality here, and Matsuzaka's navy-blue suit, white shirt and black dotted tie all show respect for tradition. He smiles again, shyly -- not posing or hamming but beaming, each flash of his teeth met with the bright pop of the cameras.
"It's something I have looked forward to for a long time," he says in Japanese. "My fans, my teammates and everyone, I hope they will understand and support me. I'll be sorry to leave Japan, but this is my dream and this is what I need to do now." It's a neatly scripted speech from Matsuzaka. "There's a routine," says Peter Miller, a 25-year resident of Japan who's here representing the MLB Players Association. "You apologize, you express humility, and at the same time, you say that you're confident about what's to come." Although there are four American writers in the room, this is technically a closed event, for members of the kisha, or local press club. There will be no special interviews for the gaijin (foreigners). But even without a translator, it's easy to read the interplay between the young man on the stage and the reporters on the floor.
Matsuzaka's face reveals many emotions: exuberance, pride and even relief, now that he's finally free, after eight pro seasons, to measure himself against the best -- and, of course, to cash in. (Two weeks later, the Red Sox will bid a staggering $51.1 million to win the right just to talk to him.) And yet, Matsuzaka also has a nervous understanding that this is the end of the world as he's known it. Many of his fans, not to mention the assembled league officials and journalists, can't imagine Japanese baseball without him.
"There are very mixed feelings in the room," Miller says. "This is like someone breaking out of a cocoon and taking flight while his brothers and sisters remain behind. Japan is a hard place to leave. It's both exciting and terrible, what he's doing." The next morning, the headlines scream from the front pages of Tokyo's 16 daily newspapers. Beside a huge picture of the pitcher's smiling face, one of the tabloids proclaims: The Monster Is Coming! America Panics!
Matsuzaka's mother named him for Daisuke (pronounced Dice-K) Araki, a pitcher who dominated the Koshien -- the national summer high school baseball tournament -- in 1980, the year she was pregnant.
"He was born to play baseball," Yomiuri Giants pitching coach Takao Obana says of Matsuzaka. "Very tough. It's inside him from the very beginning." Matsuzaka had major league dreams as far back as elementary school, but it wasn't until Hideo Nomo proved Japanese players could compete in the majors, in 1995, that his countrymen could truly begin to expand their horizons.
Three years later, a 17-year-old Matsuzaka capped off an undefeated, 208-strikeout season for Yokohama High School with a performance at the Koshien that was as brutal as it was brilliant. In a complete-game victory over powerhouse PL Gakuen, he threw 250 pitches over 17 innings in withering heat. The following day, in a semifinal against Meitoku Gijuku, he played eight innings in the outfield before throwing a 15-pitch ninth to get a win. And the next day, in the final, he pitched a title-clinching, 11-strikeout no-hitter vs. Kyoto Seisho.
In clips of the no-no on YouTube, Matsuzaka's gray Yokohama uniform hangs loose and his cap nearly swallows his head. But there's something in his eyes that says he's a man among boys, something in the way he punctuates his pitches with a badass right-leg flip, something in the way he slowly backpedals to the rubber after each pitch, something in the settling breath he takes. The Koshien is Japan's most popular sporting event, witnessed by 55,000 singing, screaming, drum-banging fans each day and broadcast live.
The tournament made Matsuzaka a national hero, but the clips say it didn't make him. The kid came with poise already installed.
The practice field at Yokohama High is mud-black from rain and pocked with the spike marks of two dozen players hustling through drills. The boys shout hai (yes) in unison at every command from a fungo-wielding coach. Meanwhile, manager Motonori Watanabe, arms folded across his chest, jaw carved from rock, looks on from the dugout. He teaches discipline, he demands it, but he knows these kids aren't playing just for him. "They all wish to be Matsuzaka," he says. "They want to follow his example."
Watanabe walks to the bullpen and toes the rubber on the middle one of five mounds. Around him, fastballs pop into catchers' gloves. "Matsuzaka worked from this spot every day," Watanabe says. "Since he left eight years ago, none of the players touch this mound. It is completely left alone. They walk around it.
It's their idea; they believe only if they can someday pitch to Matsuzaka's standard can they step on this mound and throw from this rubber." For Watanabe, the hill is full of memories. He converted Matsuzaka from a freshman outfielder into a pitcher here by placing balls on the plate and challenging him to knock them off. He schooled the kid on form, too, setting up a net to catch pitches a half-dozen feet from the mound, making him focus on balance and motion rather than results. Matsuzaka was tireless, sometimes throwing 250 to 300 pitches in a day. "He wanted very much to get it right, always setting a high bar and trying to clear it," Watanabe says. "He worked hard. He has a special heart." Red Sox fans may cringe at the thought of so many pitches, but in Watanabe's eyes, Matsuzaka embodies the Japanese virtue of doryoku (maximum effort).
And that principle endures here, the manager says, because Matsuzaka returns to Yokohama, to this hill, every January to begin his preseason training. "I know for him it is a great and meaningful challenge, but it's sad for me to see him go to the United States," Watanabe says. "Having him here, seeing his spirit, watching his actions, it inspires our players more than I can tell you." The Koshien was only the beginning. As an 18-year-old in 1999, Matsuzaka was the Pacific League Rookie of the Year. He won 16 games in
24 starts, and struck out Ichiro three times in a game. Except for 2002, when he strained his groin, he has averaged 14.6 wins and 182 strikeouts a season, and his career ERA is 2.95.
In international competition, Matsuzaka has been even better. He fired eight shutout innings vs. Cuba in the 2004 Olympics, and he went 30 with a 1.38 ERA and earned MVP honors last March as Japan won the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Although Team USA didn't face Matsuzaka, manager Buck Martinez followed him closely, calling him "a one or a two," a big-game pitcher. A veteran MLB scout compares the six-foot, 187-pound Matsuzaka to Hall of Famer Tom Seaver and says his arm strength is vastly superior to Nomo's. And, like El Duque, Matsuzaka can attack hitters from dizzying angles, with multiple pitch sequences. He throws a fastball in the low- to mid-90s (topping out at 97), a slider, a changeup, a curveball, a forkball, a two-seam fastball and a splitter (some say it's a shuuto, a nasty sinker that late-breaks down and in on righthanded hitters).
Which one is his out pitch? Obana says it's the fastball. Jim Allen of the Daily Yomiuri swears by the slider and shuuto. Bobby Valentine, the former Mets and Rangers skipper who's spent the past three seasons managing in Japan, favors the changeup. "That's the swing-and-miss pitch," he says.
Speculation also persists that Matsuzaka throws the "gyro-ball," a theoretical pitch imagineered by Japanese scientists who claim it can spin spirally, like a bullet or a football. When thrown by a righthander to righthanded batters, the gyro-ball, in mathematical models, breaks severely down and away. Matsuzaka has studied the pitch and admits to experimenting with it in the bullpen, but he's coy when asked if he's thrown anything like it in a game. And what do hitters think? "There's a very tough pitch that moves, that strikes us all out," says Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima. "Is it a gyro? I don't know. I'll call it whatever you want."
On a Wednesday evening in early November, Peter Miller stares out at the neon streets of Tokyo from the back of a taxi and shakes his head. "You can't imagine what it was like here when Japan won the WBC," he says. "The dancing. The shouts. I've never seen such a celebration here. Ichiro said it was the greatest experience of his baseball life. So did Sadaharu Oh. Everyone felt Japan was finally on a level playing field with the major leagues.
Everyone felt it changed things."
It has, and it hasn't. As the Matsuzaka drama unfolds, a Ryan Howard-led U.S. squad dismantles the Nippon Professional Baseball all-stars in a five-game exhibition. At the behest of his new best friend, Scott Boras, The Monster sits out the series.
Before a Friday night game at the Tokyo Dome, Norichika Aoki, a 24-year-old centerfielder for the Yakult Swallows, says of Matsuzaka's big move, "It's what we all want. If there is an opportunity for me to go to the majors, like he is doing, or at an even younger age, I would love to go." Time was, a young comer like Aoki would be loath to speak of his dreams for fear of sounding cocky and alienating his team and fans. But in a post-WBC world, players are emboldened. Japanese fans and media often refer to Matsuzaka as Sekai No Ace (the World's Ace); Japanese players see him as the best of the best on either side of the Pacific. More than that, they see Matsuzaka as part of a movement in which they too can participate. (Hanshin Tigers pitcher Kei Igawa and Swallows third baseman Akinori Iwamura were also posted in November.) Matsuzaka's departure, more than Nomo's, more than Ichiro's or Hideki Matsui's more recently, is how Japanese players know they've arrived. But there's still an undercurrent of anxiety about how Matsuzaka will adapt. "Speedwise and commandwise, he's perfect," says White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, who's here with the MLB all-stars. "He has no holes in his technique." And then Iguchi drops the expectations hammer:
"I think he will be successful. I think he has to be. We need him to succeed there."
Bobby V isn't worried about Matsuzaka. It's the posting process itself that has him squinting at the future from his perch in an Osaka skybox. "Japanese baseball can't exist for long, just like the Negro Leagues couldn't exist, if Major League Baseball just takes the best players away," he says. "This isn't, this shouldn't be, a minor league breeding ground. This is a place where newborns are dressed in Yomiuri Giants uniforms. This is a place with history and passion. This is a place where baseball is the No. 1 sport, where baseball is played on every last patch of available dirt." Valentine envisions a system in which Asian teams would make up a division of MLB and compete for the World Series crown. Perhaps an international draft is coming. Perhaps we'll someday see unfettered international free agency. For now, corporate-owned Japanese teams are content to post their players to make up for losses in business or at the gate. "It looks shortsighted to me," Valentine says. "Maybe it builds partnerships, but I don't think it takes into account the future of baseball in this country, no matter how successful someone like Matsuzaka may be."
Katsuhisa "Matt" Matsuzaki, an administrator for the Pacific League, fills out the Japanese lineup in his scorebook before the last game of the all-star series. There is no Matsuzaka, no Iwamura, and the next time Matt fills out the book, there will be no Igawa. Like so many on the Japanese side of the baseball world, Matt's torn, ambivalent about what's happening. "It's very exciting to see someone like Matsuzaka rise to such heights," he says. "It will be exciting to see him meet the challenges of living and playing in the United States against the great players there. But the loss is great too.
Imagine Derek Jeter coming to play full-time in Japan. Imagine a Japanese owner walking into the Yankee clubhouse and taking him away. That's what it means here. That's what it feels like. It's a marketing loss, a financial blow, and a blow to our hearts." Like LeBron in the U.S., Daisuke Matsuzaka is woven into Japanese pop culture. They love him for what he did in the Koshien. They love him for what he's done with the Lions. They love him for being married to Nippon TV sportscaster Tomoyo Shibata. They love the way he spikes his hair and sometimes dyes it red. They love his bravado. (Straight out of Yokohama, he announced he would win the Rookie of the Year award; after the WBC win, he called his Japan squad "the best team ever.") And they love his knack for coming up big. "It's hard to explain how popular he is," says Manabu Yamada, a sports marketing executive in Tokyo. "He's bigger than a rock star." That's apparent on the streets of the city, when three teenage girls spot an American with a Lions hat and converge. "Matsuzaka!" one of them says happily, pointing at the cap. "Matsuzaka!" another says, laughing. The object of their adoration is sometimes referred to as Koshien No Moushigo (the Heaven-Sent Child of the Koshien), and now his name takes on an almost sacred quality. The girls are ecstatic. They walk on, turning back one last time to call out "Matsuzaka!" as if it were
"Aloha!" -- hello and goodbye, the beginning and the end.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.