Hopes of a nation are riding on ace

TOKYO -- Even if it sometimes has taken longer than expected, Daisuke Matsuzaka has always delivered, and Japan's fans are counting on him to do so again.

As the deadline approaches for the right-handed wunderkind to put pen to paper and officially make the big league leap, few doubt that somehow Matsuzaka once more will get it done for Japan.

It took five years for the youngster, who dominated this baseball-mad nation's consciousness as an 18-year-old high schooler, to win his first Japan Series ring.

Compared with that protracted climb, agreeing to the terms that will make Matsuzaka a major leaguer should be a snap. But with sports dailies here regularly reporting that the Red Sox and agent Scott Boras are still an ocean apart in negotiating, the tension in Tokyo is comparable to that surrounding Matsuzaka's epic high school feats in the 1998 Koshien finals.

Once more, Matsuzaka is carrying the hopes of the nation on his shoulders. On Saturday, he looked as calm heading to the States as he was going to the mound against Mexico and Cuba in the World Baseball Classic.

Regardless of how far his agent has to go to secure the best deal for his client, make no mistake, this deal will get done. By the end of the week, the Sox will be staking out space for their new No. 18 in the Fenway clubhouse and planning for the swarm of Japanese journalists who will descend on Boston in April.

Just as Boras will leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of Matsuzaka's interests, the Red Sox have shown similar zeal.

Craig Shipley, assistant to Sox general manager Theo Epstein, saw nearly every one of Matsuzaka's games as the season drew to a close and probably looked at more of the right-hander's late-season pitches than any one of the Seibu Lions' catchers.

Even after their monumental bid knocked Japan's socks off, the Sox continued to go the extra mile, or in Matsuzaka's case the extra 6,000 -- in pursuit of their man. In an unprecedented move, president and CEO Larry Lucchino traveled to Japan in the middle of negotiations. Although he had hoped to meet Matsuzaka, the real goal seems to have been firsthand fact-finding.

"It was worth four days of his life to make sure he knows everything he needs to know," said Jim Small, the director of MLB Japan.

In order to help the deal go off without a hitch, Lucchino reassured Lions officials that his team was negotiating in good faith.

One of the drawbacks of the posting process is the possibility a cunning player would manipulate the system to establish his minimum market value in the majors.

By refusing to sign, a player could return to Japan and demand the posting fee -- money that would have gone to his team -- as the starting point in his negotiations upon becoming a free agent.

In Matsuzaka's case, this would require him to wait until after the 2008 season. Barring any of the breakdowns after age 27 that historically have plagued pitchers with similar workloads, Matsuzaka would then be able to claim $51.1 million as the absolute minimum for signing him. And in this case, all the money would go to the player and none to his former team.

This line is likely one of Boras' points of discussion with the Sox, but in the end, the decision will be Matsuzaka's to make.

Hopes here are that Matsuzaka will decide to take an acceptable deal and turn his and Japan's dream into reality.

A lot might depend on how much of Matsuzaka's dream of playing in the majors is real as opposed to a ploy to get the Lions to post him. When his amateur negotiating rights went to the Seibu Lions in the 1998 draft, the Yokohama High School star at first told Seibu to take a hike.

His plans, he said, included pitching only for his hometown Yokohama BayStars or remaining an amateur so he could pitch for Japan in the Sydney Olympics. Yet, those dreams turned out to be negotiable, and he eventually signed with the Lions.

In the spring of 1999, long before Pacific League teams agreed to send stars to Sydney, I asked Matsuzaka if he felt any sadness by having to abort his dreams of Olympic glory.

Matsuzaka replied: "It was not my dream."

His stance about remaining an amateur to fulfill an Olympic dream appears to have been little more than a negotiating tactic. But at that time, few Japanese cared if Matsuzaka pitched in the Olympics or not. It was a non-issue. They wanted to see him pitch as a pro -- and he didn't disappoint.

Back then, the hopes of the nation were not pinned to whether Matsuzaka went to Sydney, and there was no pressure on him to stick to his guns. This time, however, things are different.

Just as his country counted on him in the WBC, the nation is expecting major league success now. It will be a massive disappointment if Matsuzaka says the Sox's offer is too unworthy to allow him to fulfill a dream he has held "since childhood."

As an added incentive to their young ace, the Seibu Lions presented a detailed account of how they intend to spend their windfall.

If the sheer embarrassment of the nation's hero being thrown back like an undersized trout is not enough to spark a showdown between Red Sox Nation and Japan, the fact that Japan's loss of tax revenue would be 2.4 billion yen ($20.65 million) just might do it.

The Lions have slated 1.6 billion yen ($13.77 million) for additional players' salaries, 700 million yen ($6.02 million) each for upgrading restrooms and the clubhouse and 300 million yen ($2.56 million) each toward replacing their dome's artificial surface and installing field seats.

Should Matsuzaka return to Tokorozawa, all those plans will go down the drain and fans will be left shaking their heads.

As happy as Lions fans would be to have Matsuzaka for another year or so, the nation of Japan would be devastated.

If the sheer embarassment of the nation's hero being thrown back like an undersized trout is not enough to spark a showdown between Red Sox Nation and Japan, the fact that Japan's loss of tax revenue 2.4 billion yen ($20.65 million) just might do it.

While Boras may think nothing of causing an international incident of these proportions, Matsuzaka is unlikely to be a party to it.

Expect him to sign and be in Boston come April.

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.