Matsuzaka's debut generates buzz in Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Boston Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima made it only a couple of steps out of the visitor's clubhouse before the throng of Japanese media descended upon him. Reporters shouted questions; camera crews captured every move.

The scene surrounding Boston's rookie earlier this week is a toned-down version of what's expected today, when Daisuke Matsuzaka makes his major league debut against the Kansas City Royals.

According to the team's account, about 200 members of the media, including 135 individuals from Japanese television, print, radio and internet outlets will be covering Matsuzaka's regular-season debut.

"He's definitely the real deal," Red Sox pitcher Kyle Snyder said. "I was impressed from Day One. He's very serious about his job."

So much so that Matsuzaka has a policy of not speaking to reporters the day before he pitches. And if anybody in the Royals' starting lineup has him figured out, they sure weren't willing to tell anyone.

"From what I hear, he's got really outstanding stuff, command of several pitches," Mark Grudzielanek said. "It's great for the game to have somebody come in with all the buildup."

The 26-year-old with the catchy nickname Dice-K is generating plenty of buzz in a city where Opening Day often is the only sellout and interest in the Royals routinely wanes by early June.

Boston pitching coach John Farrell doesn't anticipate a huge crowd -- or the media contingent -- to cause much of a stir for a young man who has been in the public view for years.

Farrell also isn't worried about the fatigue Matsuzaka experienced late in spring training, saying the pitcher felt good after a bullpen session Tuesday. Farrell's only concern is an expected gametime temperature in the low 50s.

"He has pitched in cold weather. It's been on rare occasions because their home ballpark was a dome," Farrell said. "But the one great thing about pitching on a cold day is the warmest guy in the field is the starting pitcher."

And if you consider the intense spotlight Matsuzaka has been under since arriving in Kansas City, he should already be plenty warm.

Royals officials persuaded Red Sox manager Terry Francona to let them know in advance when Dice-K would be pitching so they could be better prepared for the media. Two volunteer interpreters, one a pitcher from the University of Kansas, are on hand.

"This series already has the feel of a league championship series," Royals spokesman Mike Swanson said after Kansas City defeated Boston 7-1 on Opening Day.

That day was marked as much by Okajima's first appearance and Curt Schilling's short outing as by the dozens of photographers positioned three-deep down the left-field line, snapping pictures of Matsuzaka while he stretched. Hundreds of shutters clapped every time he stirred along the outfield wall.

Even when Dice-K isn't speaking, he's making news.

"There is going to be many, many attention Thursday when he pitches," said Masanori Hirose of the Japanese daily Chunichi Shimbun, who followed Yankees star Hideki Matsui last season and said Dice-K already is the most popular player in his home country.

The game starts at 1:10 p.m. CT, which means Matsuzaka will unload his first pitch shortly after 2 a.m. in Japan. The expectations are enormous for Dice-K, the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic last year.

Dice-K's legend began in high school, when he threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning complete game in Koshien, the national tournament. He pitched the next day in relief, then threw a no-hitter on the third consecutive day to win the championship.

Matsuzaka signed with the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League after high school, his charm and cherubic nature instantly endearing him to a baseball-crazed nation. Over eight years he went 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA.

"He keeps getting bigger and bigger and getting more popular," said Yoshiki Sasaki, who has been covering Matsuzaka since 2002 for the Japanese newspaper Hochi Shimbun. "Japan saw Matsuzaka getting big."

With at least six pitches -- not counting that mystical (mythical?) gyroball -- and a fastball clocked in the mid-90s, baseball's big spenders spent the offseason pining for Matsuzaka.

Boston eventually won the bidding war, posting $51,111,111 for the right to negotiate. The sides agreed to a $52 million, six-year contract Dec. 13, and every move Matsuzaka has made since then has been watched and weighed.

"The one thing he's shown us, because he has pitched on such a high stage, for lack of a better term, since the age of 17, is his relaxation and his mound presence to deal with the attention and the spotlight," Farrell said. "I think he feels very much at home in this environment."

A new Nike commercial began airing exclusively in Japan on Wednesday that bottles Matsuzaka mania into a 30-second spot.

It begins by showing fans around the world eagerly anticipating his first major league start. Interspersed are shots of the media circus, Red Sox fans yelling encouragement and opposing fans pressing for failure. It closes with Matsuzaka in front his locker, flashing his radiant smile before heading to the mound.

The tag line: "Just do it: Enjoy the pressure."