Red Sox' Talks With Matsuzaka at Endpoint

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Two baseball-loving nations -- Red Sox and Japan -- will be standing by anxiously today to see whether the most fascinating, complex and important contract negotiation in recent history will culminate in pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka donning a Boston Red Sox uniform at Fenway Park or returning to Japan in an ending that would disappoint both nations and could lead to a legal fight over the "posting" system that brings Japanese players to the major leagues.

The latest twist in a month-long negotiation that has strained credulity and tested the basic premise behind the posting system came late Monday night, when Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino, flying on the private plane of team owner John Henry, landed in Orange County, Calif., for an unannounced visit to agent Scott Boras to present an enhanced offer for Matsuzaka in hopes of reigniting their stalled contract talks.

"We're on Scott Boras's doorstep because he hasn't negotiated with us thus far," Henry said in a conference call with reporters that began just before 1 a.m. yesterday. "We're taking the fight directly to him to try and have a negotiation here."

The sides have until the stroke of midnight tonight to complete an agreement that would put the 26-year-old Matsuzaka -- whose rights the Red Sox won a month ago from the Seibu Lions with a historic posting bid of $51.1 million -- in a Boston uniform. However, because the Red Sox are insisting that Matsuzaka pass a physical before the deal is made official, an agreement would need to be reached earlier in the day.

In an impromptu news conference late Monday night, Boras confirmed speculation that he is seeking a $100 million contract for Matsuzaka. The Red Sox did not reveal their offer, but it is believed that they improved it from around $8 million per season to around $10 million per season for five or six years -- a price they feel is fair for a pitcher who has yet to prove he can succeed against major league hitters.

"It's normally not a good ploy" to bid against oneself, Epstein said, acknowledging the Red Sox raised their offer without receiving a counteroffer to their original one. "But we want to demonstrate to Matsuzaka and the fans of Japanese baseball how important he is to us."

The Red Sox are widely viewed as having most, if not all, of the leverage. They alone hold Matsuzaka's rights, so if the negotiations fail, Matsuzaka would return to Japan -- where, according to media reports there, he could face public shame over the perception he was greedy -- with the Red Sox getting their $51.1 million back.

There even is a palatable and intriguing fallback option for the Red Sox to pursue. With the returned money, they could try to sign 44-year-old free agent pitcher Roger Clemens, who has hinted to friends he might like to finish his career where it began, at Fenway Park.

However, Boras did not earn his reputation as the most ruthless, creative and cunning agent in the game by allowing such roadblocks to stop him. On Monday night, he threatened to take Matsuzaka back to Japan if his price isn't met. He also could mount a legal challenge to the posting system that, if successful, could make Matsuzaka to Japanese players what Curt Flood was to American players.

Boras's argument could be that the posting system, by requiring large sums of money to be paid by a major league team to a player's Japanese team, results in the artificial depression of the players' compensation.

Should Matsuzaka return to Japan, he would not be eligible for free agency until 2008, but could be posted again by Seibu next year. When speculation arose that Boras and Matsuzaka might try to buy the player's free agency from Seibu -- theoretically allowing the team to recoup some of the money it lost when the Red Sox deal fell through -- MLB officials quickly shot it down, saying such free agency would not be recognized by either MLB or Japan.

At the heart of the standoff is a philosophical difference of opinion as to the nature of the posting fee.

The Red Sox believe it can be counted in negotiations as part of the team's total expenditure toward getting the player signed. Informed of Boras's statement that Matsuzaka is worth $100 million in this market, Epstein said, "That [figure] is certainly in the right ballpark for the commitment of the ballclub" -- a pointed reference to the team's contention that the $51.1 million posting fee counts toward that commitment.

But Boras believes the posting fee has nothing to do with how the player is compensated, comparing it to a luxury tax payment a team must make when a new contract pushes the team above the tax threshold.

"In the American system," Boras said, "no player is asked to reduce their salaries for luxury tax purposes."

Should the deal fall through, the questions will be many and pointed, to both sides:

Did the Red Sox negotiate in good faith with a pitcher whose value in today's market, by all accounts, is far higher than the team's offer -- or did they perhaps foresee this conclusion, and accept it as a means of blocking the rival New York Yankees from getting Matsuzaka?

As for Boras, did he do right by a client who a month ago claimed his dream was to pitch in the major leagues, or did he turn Matsuzaka into a legal test case without the client's full understanding?

"You make your best offer," Henry said, implying precisely that, "and just hope the player receives it."

But for now, with the Red Sox saying Henry's plane will depart for Boston this morning, the only pertinent question is whether Matsuzaka will be on it.

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