By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
BOSTON, April 10 -- Daisuke Matsuzaka was an 18-year-old phenom, fresh out of high school, pitching for the Seibu Lions of Japan's Pacific League early in the 1999 season, when he accomplished something so personally fulfilling he was moved to declare afterward, "My confidence became conviction today." What had Matsuzaka done? He had struck out Japan's best hitter -- a slashing, speedy superstar for the Orix Blue Wave who would leave Japan for the United States a year later with six batting titles and a .353 career average -- not once, not twice, but three consecutive times.
The hitter, of course, was Ichiro Suzuki, and on Wednesday night, halfway around the globe, they will meet again -- a confrontation that, in Japan, carries all the buzz of an Ali-Frazier fight. Matsuzaka, now 26, will be making his Fenway Park debut for the Boston Red Sox, the team that spent $103.1 million this winter to get him. The first batter he faces will be Suzuki, 33, the Seattle Mariners' center fielder and leadoff hitter.
For what will be the second home game of their season -- traditionally the day the media pack dwindles to only the hard-cores -- the Red Sox have credentialed around 350 media members, nearly half of them Japanese. That is roughly the same number as would cover a typical American League Championship Series game at Fenway. The old park will be packed with Red Sox fans eager to get their first eyewitness look at Matsuzaka.
"It's been such a long time ago that I don't remember many things" about facing Matsuzaka in Japan, Suzuki said through a interpreter on Tuesday. He went 8 for 34 (.235) with one homer and four RBI against Matsuzaka in Japan before departing for the United States. "Hitting that homer off him is a good memory for me. But for the future, more than my records against him, the feelings that are created facing him are what's important."
On Tuesday, hours before the Red Sox' home opener against the Mariners, Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima, a 31-year-old left-hander who also joined the Red Sox this year, walked toward the Mariners' dugout -- Japanese custom holding that the younger party must initiate the contact -- to say hello to Suzuki and Seattle catcher Kenji Johjima, who were playing catch.
"Ichiro-san," Matsuzaka called Suzuki, adding the Japanese honorific that younger players always use to refer to their elders, whether it is another player, a manager or even a reporter.
Despite his slight stature, Suzuki is a towering figure in Japan, the first Japanese position player to succeed in the major leagues, and still the best. He won the AL rookie of the year and most valuable player awards in his first year in the big leagues, 2001, and has been an all-star in each of his six seasons.
But according to Gaku Tashiro, senior baseball reporter for Sankei Sports, a Tokyo-based all-sports daily, Matsuzaka right now is considered a bigger story in Japan than Suzuki and New York Yankees left fielder Hideki Matsui combined. In fact, Tashiro said, Matsuzaka is one of Japan's biggest celebrities in any arena, comparing his profile as a cross-cultural phenomenon to that of Tiger Woods in the United States or David Beckham in England.
"It is difficult to compare a baseball player to a film actor or a television star," said Tashiro, whose paper is one of six Japanese publications that cover Matsuzaka full-time. "But right now, I would say Matsuzaka is as big as anyone in Japan."
Part of Matsuzaka's celebrity status also stems from his wife's high profile. Tomoyo Shibata is a well-known television news personality in Japan, and she writes a popular blog ( http://nblog.national.jp/baby/) that serves as a diary about their 16-month-old daughter, Niko, whom Tomoyo calls "my princess" in the blog.
During his Pacific League career, Daisuke Matsuzaka more than fulfilled the vast potential he displayed in that rookie season of 1999, compiling a 108-60 record with a 2.95 ERA and earning the nickname Kaibutsu -- "The Monster." In 2001, he won the Sawamura Award, Japan's version of the Cy Young -- named for legendary pitcher Eiji Sawamura, who struck out Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in succession during a 1934 all-star game in Japan.
Asked Tuesday what advice he would give to Mariners teammates who will be facing Matsuzaka for the first time, Johjima said: "The first thing we have to keep in mind is to pray to God. That's the first thing. Do my best, is the second thing. That's it."
On the eve of his first at-bat against Matsuzaka in nearly seven years, Suzuki was not in an expansive mood. Asked his thoughts about how momentous the occasion will be in Japan, he scoffed: "I'm in America. Please ask someone in Japan." His mood may have been darkened by the Mariners' 14-3 loss to the Red Sox, or by his three strikeouts against Josh Beckett -- who became just the second American pitcher (along with Tim Hudson) to equal the feat pulled off by the 18-year-old Matsuzaka in 1999.
But Suzuki opened a window to his true thoughts in a story published in Tuesday's Seattle Times.
"I hope he arouses the fire that's dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul," Suzuki told the newspaper. "I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger."