December 15, 2006


At home on the big stage: In career, persona, new Sox pitcher Matsuzaka an outsized presence (John Powers, December 15, 2006, Boston Globe)

The biggest adjustment, as it has been for most of Matsuzaka's major league countrymen here, will be cultural. "The language was tough at first," acknowledges Akinori Otsuka , the Texas Rangers pitcher who urged Matsuzaka to learn English when they played together in the World Baseball Classic. "I can't listen or speak. I can't communicate with teammates. I just smile and say yes, yes. Smiling is very important, I think."

Smiling comes easily to Matsuzaka, whom former teammates describe as a delight to have around the clubhouse. "He was always laughing, smiling, having fun," says Tony Fernandez, the former Toronto Blue Jays star who played with Matsuzaka in 2000. The English will come eventually, helped by Shibata, who is said to be fluent.

What will be more familiar to Matsuzaka will be the cohort of several dozen Japanese journalists and camera crews that will chronicle him daily, as they do Suzuki and the Yankees' Hideki Matsui. "My company will send a person to cover him all year," says Yasuko Yanagita, who follows Matsui for the Hochi Shimbu. "I am pretty sure every newspaper will have a person."

Pack journalism will be nothing new for a man who has been in the middle of a daily media scrum since he turned professional and has handled it with aplomb. "He understands being under a microscope," says Scott McClain, who played four seasons with Matsuzaka before returning to the States. "He's dealt with it for eight years over there."

Performing in scarlet stockings before the most adoring, least forgiving fans in the game won't rattle him, either, say those who've followed him. "He knows how to deal with the pressure," says Okuda. "He pitched in the World Baseball Classic. He pitched in the Olympic Games twice. He helped win the championship for Seibu. He knows how to handle it."

Matsuzaka has been under the microscope ever since his astounding performance in the 1998 Koshien, the annual high school tournament that author Robert Whiting called "a celebration of the purity and spirit of Japanese youth" and that is followed as rabidly in Japan as March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament, is in the United States. "Without Koshien, the summer is not coming," says Yanagita. "It is one of the biggest pastimes for the people."

Matsuzaka, whose mother named him after Daisuke Araki, who was the Koshien star during her pregnancy, carried Yokohama to the title with his wondrous arm on three consecutive days. He pitched all 17 innings in the quarterfinals, came in from the outfield in the ninth to save the day in the semis, then threw a no-hitter in the final.

His Koshien heroics were all Seibu needed to put him in its blue-and-white uniform for the next season, when Matsuzaka struck out Suzuki three times in their first meeting and went on to win 16 games and be named Rookie of the Year. At 19, Matsuzaka already was being lionized. "He was essentially a god over there," says McClain. "Whenever Daisuke [pronounced Dice-kay] pitched, there were 20,000 people extra in the stands."

Everyone in the country had seen The Monster in the Koshien.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2006 5:44 PM

I saw a documentary about Koshien, I think, and it was probably one of the better insights into just how truly weird the Japanese least for something kids can watch.

Posted by: RC at December 17, 2006 1:47 AM