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Season Opens as Surely as Day Follows Night

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Season Opens as Surely as Day Follows Night

by Robert Whiting (Mar 26, 2008)

TOKYO - If Britney Spears played baseball, you would have some idea of what the past few days were like for Daisuke Matsuzaka on his first appearance back in Japan in a Boston Red Sox uniform.

Everywhere the spiky-haired former star of the Seibu Lions went, he was surrounded by big crowds, whirring camcorders and young people screaming and yelling. At the Tokyo Dome on Monday as he attempted to run sprints before an exhibition with the Yomiuri Giants, a curtain of T-shirts, jerseys, autograph cards and other paraphernalia was lowered from the stands by fans beseeching him for his autograph.

On Tuesday night, after an endless round of receptions, news conferences, TV appearances and an elaborate pregame dance performance, Matsuzaka finally took the mound in Major League Baseball's 2008 season opener between Boston and Oakland.

Before a crowd of 44,628 and a television audience in Japan and the United States that included plenty of Red Sox fans watching the game at 6 a.m. in New England, Matsuzaka threw 95 pitches, each one accompanied by a flurry of camera flashes. He left in the sixth inning with Boston leading, 3-2, after allowing two hits and five walks.

But Oakland rallied and took the lead before Boston tied the game in the ninth. The Red Sox prevailed, 6-5, in the 10th when Manny Ramírez hit his second two-run double of the game - this one off the center-field fence. Ramírez appeared to be in midseason form, admiring the shot before he started to run. Appropriately, the victory went to another Japanese player, reliever Hideki Okajima.

Japan has seen this sort of fanfare before. In 2004, the former Yomiuri Giants star Hideki Matsui opened the major league season in Japan when his Yankees took on Tampa Bay.

Japanese fans were out in full support then, in part because Matsui had played his entire career with the Dome-based Giants. Matsuzaka's former club plays in the distant Tokyo suburb of Tokorozawa. But helping to create excitement this time, and foster a sense of pride, was the fact that the Red Sox were the first defending World Series champions to play in Japan.

Although Matsuzaka was the No. 3 starter for the 2007 Red Sox, and had a solid, but hardly great, first season in the majors, he clearly overshadowed his famous teammates here. The glossy, 90-page Japanese-language guide to the series began with several pages of color photos, advertisements and articles about Matsuzaka and Okajima before getting around to players such as Ramírez, Josh Beckett and David Ortiz.

Amid all this pride and joy about Matsuzaka, there was some uneasiness about this latest opener in Japan. Those associated with Japanese professional baseball are worried about inroads that M.L.B. might be making on their fan base.

This year, the two Red Sox-A's games are taking place in the middle of the opening week for Japan's Pacific League. Shinya Miyamoto, head of the Japanese players association, said of the Red Sox-A's series, "Here we are doing our best to raise interest in our own game and now this." He contended that a lot of people thought it was strange.

Even Matsuzaka seemed apologetic about the timing of the opener, saying, "I would have preferred to do this on another day."

In fact, television ratings for the Tokyo Giants have fallen several points since live baseball telecasts from the United States became a regular morning affair in Japan. And the number of Japanese games shown in prime time has been reduced to 40, from 70, since last year.

Moreover, leaving Japan to play in the major leagues, once regarded as a traitorous act, has become a trendy thing to do. Players are attracted to the higher pay and prestige of the major leagues and are eager to be free of the lengthy practice sessions in Japan.

Those practice sessions created an interesting contrast for the Red Sox, who, in recent seasons, have established themselves as a colorful and loose group that wins championships. When Theo Epstein, Boston's general manager, was asked if he would like to see Japanese-style practices instituted in Boston, he said no.

"It wouldn't fit," he said. "We give our players their freedom. We have a loose clubhouse environment. And they respond." And they won Tuesday, with Matsuzaka and Okajima helping to lead the way.

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