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Media following Boston's Matsuzaka creates a global swarming

TORONTO -- Two hours before the first pitch of a recent game in the Rogers Centre, there's a gaggle of media in front of the visitor's dugout. That's the first sign there's no such thing as a routine visit by the Boston Red Sox anymore.

A phalanx of 50 photographers and a similar number of reporters line the field waiting for the object of their attention to appear for his pregame stretching. Sox public relations officials struggle to corral the horde to one side so other players can ascend the dugout steps and go about their routines. The crowd waits patiently. Thirty minutes. Forty-five.

Then he appears. Surveying the scene, Daisuke Matsuzaka emerges from the tunnel and looks around. He stops, seems to make sure everyone is ready and then walks up the steps, flashbulbs exploding as if he's on a Hollywood red carpet. Meanwhile, several other cameras from Canadian outlets are also there -- filming the Japanese media doing their jobs.

Welcome to The Dice-K Show.

Just four starts into his career, Boston's $103 million import has become the world's most watched baseball player. A Red Sox game is now a traveling road show, with dozens of extra media from Japan following the team and crowds surging in every ballpark. There's been nothing like this since Fernando Valenzuela became a sensation for the Dodgers in 1981.

"From the day I got here, this place has been crazy anyway," said Boston manager Terry Francona. "So rather than complain about it, you remind yourself, 'This is really pretty cool. We've got a great pitcher who's a great teammate.' The day you start complaining about having too much media and too much interest, it's time to go. You have to count your blessings. It's a good thing.

"We have more journalists here than you would normally have but the time we spend isn't really more. We do our [pregame] media session and it's just more people, not any longer."

More than 100 Japanese journalists followed Matsuzaka to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. There were about 135 in Kansas City for his first game and the nearly 300 total media on hand were the most for a Royals game since the 1985 World Series. Dice-K's outings have all aired live in Japan, most in the early morning hours. For his appearance in Toronto, the Blue Jays' main press box was full and the team had to open its football press box for one of the few times since the 1993 Series.

The Japanese contingent swelled to nearly 200 for his first appearance in Boston and the city is expected to reap summer-long benefits from Japanese tourists. The convention and visitors bureau estimates a $14 million impact from Dice-K on the city's coffers this season, largely from hotels and restaurants. Sushi has been added to Fenway Park concession menus. Dunkin' Donuts, a prime Red Sox sponsor, erected a billboard above the right-field bleachers in Japanese.

Boston.com, the portal Web site of the Boston Globe, entered into a partnership with a Japanese-language baseball blog. There's a blog that boasts it's for "all things related to Daisuke Matsuzaka" at dicekboston.com. The Red Sox have hired a Harvard-educated translator for Dice-K and a Japanese woman to serve as a public relations liaison for the foreign media, who are covering both Matsuzaka and Japanese teammate Hideki Okajima.

"It's worldwide attention every time he pitches," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "You can't say that about anybody else. That's good for baseball."

>He's got game

At least on the field, the game is the same. Matsuzaka burst on the scene in Japan as an 18-year-old in the country's famous high school tournament and was a star for eight seasons with the Seibu Lions before the protracted drama last winter in which the Red Sox posted a $52 million fee for the rights to negotiate with him and then signed him to a $51 million contract.

"He became a legend in the high school tournament and everyone in Japan has known about him since then," said Sohta Kimura, who is following Matsuzaka for the Kyodo News of Tokyo. "It's like when someone comes out in the United States during the NCAA basketball tournament. It's that big in Japan."

Matsuzaka struck out 10 men in two of his first three starts, the first American pitcher to do that since Valenzuela. He lost his outing in Toronto largely because of three walks in a four-batter span of one inning. The crowd of more than 42,000 -- 10,000 more than attended any other game in the three-game series -- was swelled by many Japanese who waved flags or affixed them on stadium facades.

"I definitely heard and noticed the cheers from the Japanese fans prior to the game," Matsuzaka said through his interpreter. "Of course, I appreciated them."

The Sox have not done much during Dice-K's appearances, scoring just five runs in his first three starts before getting seven in start four against the New York Yankees. His home debut was ruined by a one-hitter thrown by Seattle's Felix Hernandez and opponents seem to be amping their game knowing who's on the mound for the other side.

"I don't think it will change the way we manage the game," said pitching coach John Farrell, a former Buffalo Bisons pitcher and Cleveland Indians farm director. "That can really be said for any starter that faces the Red Sox, much like someone going against the Yankees. The matchups we'll face, guys will raise their concentration level and intensity because it's the Red Sox. Not just because it's Dice-K."

"Even if I pitch well and the team does not win, I'm definitely not happy with that result," Matsuzaka said. "The weight of the loss by the team weighs more heavily on me than my personal loss."

After Sunday's game against the Yankees, when he won despite giving up six runs, Matsuzaka is 2-2 with a 4.00 ERA. He has a repertoire that some say goes as deep as seven pitches. There's a variety of change-ups, with one dubbed a "gyroball" by Japanese media (Americans say it's just a variation of a cut fastball). The straight fastball routinely gets into the range of 95-98 mph.

"He throws off-speed when he's behind in the count, too," Gibbons said. "He'll basically throw anything anytime and then he's got an above-average fastball anyway."

"He can get a little rushed out of the stretch sometimes," Boston catcher Jason Varitek said. "But he's got such great stuff that's it's always going to be a challenge for guys."

>Cultural hurdles

Matsuzaka's wife is a prominent Japanese television anchor and the Red Sox are trying to make sure the couple is comfortable here. Sachiyo Sekiguchi, the Japanese PR official hired by the Sox, does not limit herself to just assisting with media duties.

"Even outside the ballpark, there are things I can help him with," she said. "I've been living in the United States long enough [15 years] that if I can help them any way -- either Daisuke or Okajima -- I will do that. We have a massage therapist from Japan living here for the first time, too. I am bilingual and will help anybody working with the team inside or outside the park."

Farrell knows a few key words of Japanese so mound "conversations" aren't a waste of time but Francona acknowledged Matsuzaka will be working all season on becoming comfortable in an American clubhouse. In Japan, managers are revered figures. You don't joke with them. You don't disparage them. You don't call them by nicknames. In Boston, for example, virtually everyone calls Francona "Tito." That was the name of his father, another former big-leaguer.

Terry Francona was trying to explain the nickname to Dice-K during spring training -- and trying to get the point across that he wouldn't feel disrespected if the pitcher used it.

"You could see him digesting the whole thing going, 'I don't know,' " Francona recalled. "It's not their culture. He's struggling with it. He doesn't know what to do. You can see us going with the interpreter why it's OK and it's not registering.

"We were at dinner over the winter before we signed him and I had been warned that Japanese players were nervous around their manager. I told him, 'You'll be signed and there will be a night two months into it you'll be sitting in my office with your legs up [on the desk].' He's just looking at me like I'm crazy."

There's some adjustment for Americans in the Sox clubhouse as well. Managers in Japanese League games often award cash bonuses in envelopes after games to players who perform well.

"That ain't happening here. It should be the other way around," Francona said, laughing.

Dice-K's Japanese team did not pay the bonuses in cash. He told the New York Times recently that team sponsors would often award gifts for good performances such as stuffed animals or towel sets.

"As the winning pitcher, I'd receive a case with two dozen cans of coffee," he told the Times. "I like coffee but not really from a can. I just gave it away to people."

>Media madness

The Japanese media works day and night pumping stories out on Dice-K. Kimura said he arrived in Florida on Feb. 14 and hasn't had a day off since. He probably won't get one until the All-Star break either.

"He gets nervous the day before he pitches," Kimura said. "Sometimes we get 'No comment' and that's what we have to write and send home. In Japan, it's not possible to get inside the clubhouses. Those are for the players only. Here, you can get close to the players and you can ask any question you can. The manager too."

The Red Sox have around a dozen Japanese outlets that are traveling with the team. Many others have set up camp in Boston only for the season. On days he pitches, Dice-K does a large-group press conference in a room the Sox set up away from the clubhouse. In Toronto, the Raptors' old locker room in deep right-center field held 20 cameras and around 100 reporters. At home, he does two -- one for American reporters and a second for the Japanese. The Red Sox had to expand the press box and media workrooms in Fenway Park, something they wouldn't have needed to do if they hadn't signed him.

"We have 95 seats in the main box and that's usually enough for all the print people," said John Blake, the team's vice president for media relations. "Not everybody gets three or four seats per outlet, that's all.

"Spring training was tough because there were so many media and cameras. We're still kind of going through the proper ways to do all this, work the clubhouse protocol. Some clubhouses are easier than others. Fenway Park is not easy from that standpoint [because the Sox room is smaller than in most parks]."

Francona said he's tried to accommodate everyone as best he can. One Japanese journalist interrupted a Francona news conference following a Fenway rainout when he moaned in disgust after the Red Sox announced they were changing Matsusaka's day to pitch. Francona politely told him that was not socially acceptable here.

"It's difficult to say what's normal yet. We're still learning every series," Sekiguchi said. "We try to make things good for everyone, do the press conferences as a group. It's impossible almost to do it any other way. We make sure security at the ballpark helps us take care of the playing area. Dice-K has his job and we want to make sure everybody is safe."

Headline translation courtesy of University at Buffalo Department of Linguistics, Japanese Program.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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