TOKYO – Manny Ramirez lurched toward the man holding the giant check and tried to grab it. The man elbowed him away. Ramirez took the hint for about 5 seconds, then reached out once more. There is something special about a giant check. This one was his, and he wanted it now.
The check was meant for Daisuke Matsuzaka. He was going to return to his native country, win the first game of Major League Baseball's 2008 season Tuesday by pitching like they remember him – the best – stand on a podium, thank his supporters and thrust that check into the air.
Instead, it was Manny, only he acted like a kid who just crushed three packets of Fun Dip. They finally gave him the check for 1 million yen on stage, because he was the MVP of baseball's opener, stroking a two-run double off Tokyo Dome's center-field wall in the 10th inning of the Boston Red Sox's 6-5 victory against the Oakland A's. Ramirez, as versed in global currency markets as an inchworm in linguistics, couldn't quite decide what to do with the $10,000 or so.
"That's going to be some gas money," he said one minute.
"Maybe send it to my mom," he said the next.
"Can they give it to me in cash tomorrow?" he said later.
While Matsuzaka brought the crowd of 44,628 and the melting pot that comprised it – the TV reporter with long leggings, a short skirt and a Red Sox jersey, and the fans who flew 16 hours from Boston, and the guy working for the KFC stand, the one who yelled "Kentucky" like his life depended on it, except for when he stole away during the bottom half of innings to watch Daisuke – his day was mediocre: five innings and two runs, which is serviceable, paired with five walks and the precision of a dirty bomb, which isn't.
Manny brought his bat, and that satisfied everyone.
His new bat, actually. The one he fancies, with a red barrel, was too fancy for MLB standards and practices. So Ramirez plunked down a few thousand yen for a new one, put the Red Sox on the board with a two-run double in the sixth inning to tie the game before thinking he hit career home run No. 491 in the 10th.
Oakland closer Huston Street, who had blown a one-run lead in the ninth when rookie Brandon Moss hit his first career home run with one out, left a slider high in the strike zone, and Ramirez smoked it to center field. He spent a good two seconds in the batter's box admiring it, strutted 10 feet, realized the ball was not going out, picked up his pace, lugged into second and smiled his way out of any grief, his managers, teammates and fans already used to the show that accompanies Manny.
Never does it fail to entertain, the actions and proclamations and sheer oddness Ramirez embodies. If the Red Sox were perpetual losers, the act would grow old, but they're not, so they tolerate their crazy uncle, even embrace him, knowing what he brings.
Earlier in the day, it was a following that allowed Matsuzaka to escape the frenzy. As the Red Sox jogged to right field to pose for a team picture, Ramirez stopped, bowed to the fan calling out his name and kept moving along and bowing, moving and bowing, creating the perfect diversion for Matsuzaka to slip out as anonymously as a national icon can.
His ubiquity endured anyway. Matsuzaka stars in a boy-band music video, and it played repeatedly on the screen in center field. Bright lights shined in every direction, the LCD screens of cameras and cell phones capturing Matsuzaka's first pitch back home in more than a year.
Fifteen minutes later, they witnessed a 30-pitch, 13-strike, two-walk, one-hit-by-pitch, two-run inning. It wasn't exactly "Saving Private Ryan" as opening scenes go.
Matsuzaka settled down some. He still couldn't find the strike zone with a bazooka, the vast majority of his balls missing low and away on right-handers and low and in on lefties. His fastball topped 90 mph once, lacking the velocity that so excited the Red Sox when they spent $51 million to negotiate with him and another $52 million to sign him.
He ended up with a no-decision and a host of apologies, to the fans for not lasting longer and to manager Terry Francona for suggesting, when he got yanked, that he may be OK to stay in.
"As for my performance personally?" Matsuzaka said. "Well, I guess we'll have to wait until next time."
Next time is next week. Next time here, though, won't be for years. By then, Manny, with an inching-toward-40 bulge, dreads halfway down his back and a gray-flecked patchy beard, may be gone from the game. He said earlier in the week he wants to play six more years and hit 600 home runs.
Arbitrary numbers, of course, as Ramirez rarely thinks past the next word he speaks. Part of the check ceremony entailed standing next to teammate Hideki Okajima, who had won half a million yen for the "Fighting Spirit Award," and holding up another cardboard sign – this one of a color printer by the opening series' sponsor, Ricoh.
Manny didn't exactly wave it around, and when he found out he would receive the printer, too, excitement didn't take over.
"Send it to Fenway," he said.
Ramirez had one last bit of business. Someone handed him a Sharpie. Perhaps they'd auction off the signs he held. Ramirez leaned over and signed the cardboard printer. And then he took the pen to his check, that big, beautiful piece of nostalgia.
He wrote Manny Ramirez on it, sure to remind everyone that the giant check was his and no one else's.
- Red Sox