FORT MYERS, Fla. – Several miles from City of Palms Park here, down a rutty road of school-bus stops and modest one-story homes, and hours before Daisuke Matsuzaka would sit atop a third-base dugout and offer parts of himself to the process of cultural and baseball integration, Kevin Youkilis confessed curiosity.
On his first day of spring training, the Boston Red Sox first baseman had run sprints in the outfield at the franchise's complex accompanied by a gray sky, a few rain drops and a couple dozen minor-league pitchers on the next field over.
Youkilis kept in shape at a performance institute in Arizona this winter, building muscle and, he hopes, stamina. He'd lost nearly 40 batting average points and 60 on-base percentage points in the second half of last season, and several times in about 20 minutes referenced the grind of seven months of baseball. The Red Sox, too, had run out of energy, dulled by injury and a disastrous five-game series against the New York Yankees.
But, on this day, like many that will follow, the story is Matsuzaka. And Youkilis was either happy or willing (or both) to play along, admitting he was eager to stand in against the Japanese right-hander and experience, yes, the gyroball.
"I just want to see his gyroball," Youkilis said. "Is that how you pronounce it? Gyro? Hero?"
The Greek pronunciation. Youkilis grinned. The Greek God of Walks, as he was once dubbed in a pretty famous book, shook his head.
"I'm not Greek, either," he said. "That's been killing me for, what, six years?"
The Romanian guy laughed and took up the gyroball again, saying, "I guess it kind of comes at you like a bullet or something, I don't know. I want to see it. I think every batter wants to see it.
"I hope the gyroball misses bats, goes around bats, like the Bugs Bunny ball. ... Maybe it's a secret weapon. Hopefully, he doesn't throw it 'til the playoffs, then throws it by guys."
Meantime, he was asked his impression of Matsuzaka-mania.
"What?" he said. "Oh, I thought you said, 'Matsuzaka-Manny.'"
Within a couple hours of arriving here, he said, he saw his first Matsuzaka jersey, the name balanced atop No. 18, Johnny Damon's old 18, a whole new 18.
"It was weird," he said.