(Aomori Prefecture, 1980- )
In the spring of 1998, Daisuke Matsuzaka was just a regular high school student in Yokohama. He thought about his homework, exams and baseball practice. But his life changed after the national high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium that summer. At Koshien, with practically the whole country tuned in on TV or the radio, Matsuzaka's pitching for Yokohama High School was nothing short of sensational. In one game, he threw 250 pitches in 17 innings to beat powerhouse P.L. Gakuen. In the final, he threw a no-hitter - the first ever in a Koshien final - to win both the tournament and the admiration of the nation. Needless to say, after that tournament, scouts from every professional baseball team in Japan were trying to talk with Matsuzaka.
Though a big fan of the Yomiuri Giants, he wanted to play for his local team, the Yokohama Bay Stars, but the Seibu Lions of the Pacific League won the first pick in the draft lottery. Of course, they chose Matsuzaka. There followed weeks of meetings until finally the Lions manager and former pitcher Higashio Osamu presented Matsuzaka the baseball from his 200th win. This symbolic gesture finally persuaded Matsuzaka to join the Lions. He had a very successful and confident start to his career. With a fastball clocked at more 155km/hr, he notched up 14 wins in his rookie season. The media hype around him ensured that TV audiences almost doubled when he pitched. The Lions ended up second in their league and inevitably some of the magic - or at least the hype - wore off. His inclusion as one of the professionals in the Olympic team in Sydney and again in Athens put him in the limelight again.
An incident in 2000 showed him in a less mature light. While returning to his Tokyo apartment with his girlfriend (now his wife), NTV announcer Shibata Tomoyo, he was caught speeding. But he was driving a club car and one of the coaches tried to take the rap. This got both in trouble with police and Matsuzaka was hit with a large fine. The fact that the incident happened on his 20th birthday only added extra spice to the story, which made big headlines.
But it has been Matsuzaka's undoubted talent was what has kept him in the public eye. He has had his problems with injuries and probably overwhelming expectations, but he remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, and one of the few who can regularly stay the full nine innings. He and Shibata announced their engagement in late 2004 after going out for four years. Matsuzaka's romantic life reflects a new level of maturity that can only boost his performance on the mound.
In the spring of 2006, Matsuzaka was one of the stand-out pitchers in the inagural World Baseball Classic, leading Japan to a title that few gave them a chance of winning after a disappointing start. The global media attention on the event raised Matsuzaka's profile and market value considerably. He had been saying for several years that he'd like to try his luck in the U.S., and that ambition finally came closer to realization toward the end of the 2006 season, when the Lions said they'd agree to let him go on the posting system. Matsuzaka was coming off another stellar season, going 17-5 with 200 strikeouts and a 2.13 ERA. But after eight seasons, he was two years away from becoming a free agent anyway, so like the Orix BlueWave with Ichiro six years before, they no doubt decided to cut their losses.
The posting system allows several interested major league teams to bid for the right to negotiate with a player. Matsuzaka was probably the one major player left in Japan that could get just about any team salivating at the prospect of having him on their roster. The Seattle Mariners, already with Ichiro and Jojima Kenji as solidly-performing regulars, were just one of the teams said to be interested.
In the end it was the Boston Red Sox who forked out an incredible $51.1 million just for negotiating rights with Matsuzaka and his ageny, Scott Boras. Boras is renowned for taking talks right to the wire and this was no exception. The more the talks dragged on, the more speculation grew - did the Red Sox bid so much just to block any bid from the Yankees? Would Boras scuttle any deal so he could buy out Matsuzaka's contract on the cheap and deal directly with other MLB teams? Would the "Diceman" have to come back home with his head hung in shame? The media storm was reminiscent of the one surrounding Nomo Hideo, the first Japanese pitcher to cross the water back in 1995. In the end, Matsuzaka signed off on a six-year, $52 million deal and everybody looked happy.
How to judge if the total of over $103 million was a good investment? Marketing aside, of course it's all about his results. Dice-K, as he's now popularly known, got off to a good start, winning his debut game with an impressive performance and - just as importantly from a marketing point of view - won over the Boston fans. But as he ground his way through his hugely demanding first season, he seemed to gradually go into meltdown. He had a 5-7 record after the all-star break and after two losses in the playoffs, he was beginning to look like something of a liability. Then he got the win to clinch a comeback from 3-1 down in the ALCS title series against the Cleveland Indians, earning the Sox a World Series berth, and all was good with the world again. Japanese fans eagerly anticipated a showdown with resurgent countryman Matsui Kazuo of the Colorado Rockies.