FORT MYERS, Fla. – Round about the time the New York Yankees had gone to four-alarm mode, the Boston Red Sox were pulling out a chair for Daisuke Matsuzaka, their new 26-year-old pitcher, coy gyroball master and global marketing horse.
Tanned, fit and serene from his stay at the Boras Sports Training Institute in Aliso Viejo, Calif., D-Mat – as he's not often called – laughed and joked Thursday with a few of his Japanese countrymen in a 40-minute press conference that covered many topics, including his curiosity for the knuckleball, his offseason dining with Ichiro, and – courtesy of a question from the New York Post – his lack of familiarity with pitching in the Bronx.
A misty rain held just long enough so the dais chairs could be liberated from their garbage-bag wrappings. Red Sox officials beamed from the wings. And, yes, palm trees swayed in a gray-green background.
All was well in Red Sox-land.
Nobody's called with visa issues. Nobody's gone all Slip-'n'-Slide in the hot tub. Curt Schilling has mentioned a little something about playing another season (hint, hint, Theo), but his musings fell well below the Carlos Zambrano ultimatum, and even below the Mariano Rivera standard.
"I played in Japan for eight years, but it's my rookie year … here in the United States, in the major leagues," Matsuzaka opened. "So I will stay humble and play my best."
The hundred or so in the box seats facing Matsuzaka, who was perched atop the third-base dugout, nodded their appreciation. When Matsuzaka was through, spontaneous applause burst from a few dozen Japanese reporters, and Matsuzaka seemed nearly embarrassed by it.
Just north – on the interstate, in the American League East standings, by payroll, take your pick – the Yankees were beating back the daily chore of being the Yankees. Not that the Red Sox don't get their share of being the Red Sox. They do, and often it is equally colorful.
But on Day One of pitchers and catchers at Legends Field, they already had:
• Rivera announce he'd have a contract extension by opening day, or the Yankees could call his agent like everybody else next November.
• Manager Joe Torre reveal he'd called and urged Bernie Williams to come to camp, where he'd surely find room on a crowded roster, in spite of management's obvious feelings otherwise.
• Steve Swindal, George Steinbrenner's son-in-law and the heir to the pinstriped throne, get arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence just before dawn Thursday.
It was a pretty rousing first day, even by Yankee standards, when Steinbrenner's flack's statement ("Mr. Swindal apologizes profusely for this distraction during the Yankees' spring training …") is followed by a statement from commissioner Bud Selig ("I will continue to monitor the situation and will review the ultimate disposition.").
Now, granted, the Red Sox won't play catch officially until Sunday, so there will be plenty of time to catch up.
In the meantime, there was Matsuzaka, a nervous translator, a press conference broadcast live to Japan, and a few probing questions about the talented right-hander and World Baseball Classic hero making the jump to the major leagues.
He was 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 186 1/3 innings for the Seibu Lions last season, a fairly typical season for him. That's why the Red Sox paid out $103.2 million in posting fees and salary, and why they'll fit him somewhere between Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield in an attempt to make up those 11 games on the Yankees.
Twelve years ago, Hideo Nomo landed amid similar fanfare with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He lacked a gyroball – if there is such a thing (scouts call it a slightly modified changeup) – but he had a funky delivery, and a decorated resume. He, too, was 26, but, unlike Matsuzaka, had no one's wake to ride. There was no Ichiro, no Hideki Matsui to soften the transition.
Dave Wallace, the Dodgers' pitching coach then and now the pitching coach for the Houston Astros, came within a few months of mentoring Matsuzaka as well. His contract with the Red Sox was not renewed. He doesn't know Matsuzaka, but he's seen the type, and adored Nomo, and predicted good things for Matsuzaka.
"My impression of Nomo was, that's a pretty good league over there and they know how to play the game," Wallace said. "I never had to worry about him getting his work done and being prepared. Whether that's a cultural thing or not, I don't know. But my guess is it is. Those guys work their butts off. … And you've got to respect the knowledge they have."
What's left, of course, is for Matsuzaka to throw a pitch, to get an out, to win a game, to stand with a pitching staff that had its issues last season and help turn its course. Every indication – from scouts to hitters to other baseball evaluators – is that Matsuzaka is a polished pitcher who could one day be an ace.
He was especially effective against Japanese hitters up in the strike zone with a low- to mid-90s fastball, according to those who saw him regularly, a habit that doesn't usually end well in the major leagues. But a polished pitcher makes that modification, even though, when asked specifically about that Thursday, Matsuzaka said curtly, "I have no plans to change."
In fact, he called his first pitch of spring. A fastball. And then he smiled.
"That will be my first ball to throw out," he said. "And I would like my first batter, if he's listening, please try not to hit the ball."
Might work. Then, when dusk arrived and there was one final question to be had, it was about the mysterious gyroball. Does he possess such a pitch? Will he throw it? When?
"Mmmm. How should I answer?" he said. "I knew this question was coming today. I was preparing some optional answers for this particular question. Should I say, 'I have that pitch?' Or I could say, 'Which particular [pitch] are you referring to?' Or, 'Which ball are you calling a gyroball?' Overall, if I had the chance, I will pitch that ball."
"Is that the proper way to end the press conference?"
It's a good way to end the day. A pretty good day for the Red Sox. Better than the alternative, anyway.
- RED SOX
- Daisuke Matsuzaka