- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The things we really need to know about Daisuke Matsuzaka, we can't learn at a Feb. 15 news conference in an otherwise-empty ballpark lined with palm trees.
The things we really need to know, we won't learn until it's April 29 in Yankee Stadium. Or it's Vladimir Guerrero, standing 60 feet away, with the tying run on third. Or it's Game 6 of the ALCS, and the only thing riding on every pitch is the future quality of life for the entire populations of New England and greater metropolitan Tokyo.
But there will be time for all that. Lots of time.
Thursday, however, was a different time.
It was a time for 150 or so members of a worldwide media mob to descend on exotic City of Palm Parks, the home ballpark of a team that wasn't even scheduled to start working out for three more days.
Let's just say they weren't there to see if Runelvys Hernandez had arrived at spring training yet.
It was a time for one of the most intriguing figures ever to set foot on an American baseball field to flash his smile, work on his multilingual quips and do his best to perpetuate the illusion that there really is such a thing as a gyroball.
As here-I-am, spring-training-arrival press gatherings go, it sure beat the heck out of "Mr. Bonds Arrives in Scottsdale, 2005 edition."
We have no idea yet whether Matsuzaka will be able to rise to the moment the first time he faces A-Rod with the bases packed. But he definitely rose to this very special meet-the-media moment.
At one point, for instance, he was asked an innocuous question about which of his six pitches he expected to unfurl for his first pitch in the big leagues. It was the kind of question one of his less imaginative, or more combative, future friends in uniform would have trampled all over, with your basic one-word, you're-boring-me-pal answer.
After announcing that he would "love to pitch a fastball [for] my first pitch," an unexpected gleam erupted in Matsuzaka's eye. Whereupon he added:
"And I'd like my first batter, if he's listening, to please try not to hit the ball."
Well, if that first batter was listening, there was a good chance he was listening a lot closer to Tokyo than to Fort Myers -- because this little performance was broadcast live on Japanese TV, on four different networks, in morning drive time.
So apparently, there's a slight fascination with this guy on that side of the Pacific.
Then again, there has been since he was 17 years old.
"As we were going through this process," said Craig Shipley, the Red Sox's vice president for international scouting, "I kept telling people 'Look, this guy's different. He's different than all the people who came [here] before him.' And the reason he's different is because of what he did in Koshien."
Koshien isn't a word that registers on the American radar screen. But it was Koshien -- the annual site of Japan's riveting national high school baseball tournament -- that turned Daisuke Matsuzaka into a legend. When he was still just a high school senior.
You might have heard this tale someplace before. But if not, we'll sum up what Matsuzaka did in the final three games of that tournament as succinctly as possible:
A 250-pitch, 17-inning complete game in the quarterfinals. Followed by a save in the semifinals the next day. Followed by a no-hitter in the finals the day after that. All on national TV.
Pretty good weekend.
"I don't think many people in this country can comprehend what Koshien is about," Shipley said. "But it's like the biggest sporting event in the country. It's like the Final Four, only ramped up. And it's high school. And it's tradition. And it's purely for the love of the game. And the whole country stops.
"So believe me. This guy is used to the spotlight. He's had it since Koshien."
Which might explain why he looked so comfortable in that spotlight almost nine years later Thursday, even though he was a continent away from home and many of the questions came hurtling at him in a language he didn't speak.
He is a 26-year-old walking media event. And, with his $52-million contract piled on top of his team's $51.1-million posting fee, he is a source of massive fascination in two nations. But if any of that is fazing this guy, let's just say you would hate to find yourself playing poker with him.
You think that contract and that posting fee have turned up the jets on his pressure cooker? Eh, there's zero sign of that. His answer to a question about the money: "The scale on the contract does not determine how I play baseball. I feel the responsibility a little bit, but not pressured."
Pressure? He hasn't felt it yet. In his rearview mirror, he has seen nothing but success and domination. There was Koshien. There were 108 wins in eight seasons with the Seibu Lions, with 300 fewer hits allowed than innings pitched. There were sub-2.00 ERAs in the both the 2004 Athens Olympiad and last year's epic World Baseball Classic.
But now there's a whole new chapter. Now there's this.
Now there's this dramatic entrance into a totally foreign universe, where nothing matters more in five northeastern states than How The Sawx Did Last Night. How can we possibly make him comprehend that?
"I actually saw my first 'Dice-K Mania' shirt the other day," Matsuzaka's new teammate, Kevin Youkilis, reported Thursday. "The first day I got into Fort Myers, I saw a 'Dice-K Mania' shirt -- with 18 on the back. It was weird, man, seeing a Red Sox shirt with No. 18 without Johnny Damon on the back."
But he'd better get used to it. And Damon had better get used to it, too, for that matter -- because there's no telling how many of those shirts are going to be sold in the next six months. The over-under, based on early trends, might be one billion.
"From a baseball standpoint, you don't begin to put those kinds of expectations on a young guy. But in the offseason, it's fair to let the imagination run wild. As soon as [Matsuzaka] puts on the uniform and the spikes and starts throwing, the game will humble you. He knows that. And it's all going to come down to physical, mental and spiritual ability."
-- Dr. Charles Steinberg, Red Sox VP of public affairs
Doreen Arsenault, the Red Sox's merchandising manager, said Thursday that she made the mistake of ordering a mere 288 of each of the four Matsuzaka T-shirts that are for sale in the team gift shop in Fort Myers. A week after those shirts arrived, one style was sold out completely -- and if you wanted one of the others, you had to be a fan of double-extra-large. And remember, spring training hasn't started yet.
"Historically, we haven't done real well here with T-shirts with names and numbers," Arsenault said. "That's why I said, initially, 'I think I'll be a little bit conservative.' But if I'd known there would be this much excitement about him, I'd have ordered 1,000 to start with, of each one."
Well, those 1,000 of each ought to be arriving any day now. And there will be several trillion more Matsuzaka items where that came from.
But understand something very important here. This isn't just going to be a New England phenomenon.
After all the dollars and all the yen and all the fascination with what pitches this man does and doesn't throw, we might very well be about to witness an international baseball phenomenon unlike anything we have witnessed before. Or, at the very least, anything witnessed since Fernando Valenzuela.
Of course, these are the Red Sox. So we also might be about to witness a guy blowing out his rotator cuff in the next 15 minutes.
"In your wildest dreams, you hope for Fernando-mania," said Dr. Charles Steinberg, this team's executive vice president for public affairs. "In your wildest dreams, you hope for the innocence of a silent, happy pitcher who no one in your town or in your market had heard of. But that's your wildest dreams.
"From a baseball standpoint, you don't begin to put those kinds of expectations on a young guy. But in the offseason, it's fair to let the imagination run wild. As soon as he puts on the uniform and the spikes and starts throwing, the game will humble you. He knows that. And it's all going to come down to physical, mental and spiritual ability."
From the way Daisuke Matsuzaka handled himself on a podium atop the home dugout Thursday, there is every reason to think he has the mental and spiritual part of this down. The physical part is another story.
Who the heck knows when the time bomb ignited by those 250-pitch high school complete games will go off? There already has been one elbow issue, which cost him half a season in 2002. And the transition from a six-man rotation to Japan to a five-man rotation here could be another monumental physical adjustment.
But that's just one more reason to pay attention, one more source of intrigue. There are many, many adjustments ahead for this man. And the cameras and eyeballs will be pointed at every darned one of them.
Then again, he's not the only one who needs to start adjusting.
"I've gotta get used to bowing," Youkilis said with a laugh, after meeting Matsuzaka and his countryman, Hideki Okajima. "I felt pretty awkward, man. Nobody ever bowed to me like that before."
Somehow, we have a feeling there will be many bows ahead for Daisuke Matsuzaka. But it was his final bow of this fascinating day that caught our eye.
He had finished his big press conference. He had tossed a congenial "Thank you very much" to his new media pals -- in perfect English. He was about to disappear down the dugout tunnel and into the Florida night.
But first, he turned and bowed one last time -- to the empty ballpark spread out before him. This was one statement no one needed an interpreter to comprehend.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Daisuke Matsuzaka was a one-man media event, but answers to the most important questions are still to come.