TOKYO -- It's after 3 a.m., but that hasn't stopped diehard Dice-K fans from pulling an all-nighter at the Brain Buster sports bar here to watch the Red Sox pitcher make his major league debut.
Satoshi Ishimaru and his two friends cheered and clinked cocktails of vodka and tea as Daisuke Matsuzaka took the mound more than 6,000 miles away in Kansas City, Mo. These newly minted Red Sox fans said they are looking to the 26-year-old phenomenon featured on nine television screens across the front of the bar to show just what Japan's baseball prowess is all about.
"I'm too excited to sleep," said Mahiro Ochi, 32, a financial analyst in Tokyo. "I've been waiting all winter for this."
Dice-K's debut with the Red Sox has dominated headlines here for months since he signed a $52 million contract to defect from Japan's domestic baseball league to join Boston's best. While Japanese media in the United States have captured every move of the Yokohama native since he showed up for spring training in February, local television stations fanned across Tokyo to capture baseball fever in the pre-dawn hours.
"This is a huge story. Everybody is so excited," said Toshiyuki Arizono, producer of broadcasting station NHK's "News Watch 9" program, which filmed nearly a dozen fans gathered at the smoky Brain Buster bar. "It's a bigger story than Ichiro or Matsui ever was, especially because of how much Matsuzaka got paid."
Major League Baseball wants to capitalize on the popularity of Japanese stars, including Matsuzaka, the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the New York Yankees' Hideki Matsui, to create fans for entire teams. Yesterday , the league opened a store in Tokyo, its first outside the United States, hawking everything from league-licensed jerseys to lighters and keychains.
"With the success of players like Ichiro Suzuki and the anticipation surrounding new MLB players like Daisuke Matsuzaka, this is the ideal time," said Jim Smith, managing director of MLB Japan.
At about 4:30 a.m. at the Brain Buster , Madoka Oda slurped noodles as the Red Sox scored their second run against the Royals in the fifth inning. Oda, a 38-year-old who works at a social club, said through a translator that he wanted to see Matsuzaka do well and be acknowledged as a good player, not just a good Japanese player.
A half hour later, as Matsuzaka finished up the sixth inning, Oda fell asleep, his head on the bar. He didn't even wake to the loud groans when Matsuzaka gave up his first and only run.
Brain Buster owner Kyozo Watanabe usually closes his doors at 3 a.m. but decided to stay open after many customers requested he show the game. A photo of Fenway Park greets customers at the doors, and baseballs line the counter.
By 5:15 a.m., as Matsuzaka struck out his 9th batter, the most by a Red Sox rookie in more than three decades, Watanabe poured himself a drink as customers cheered.
"Matsuzaka is symbolic for us to prove how well Japanese players can be ," said Yuko Yamaguchi , a 29-year-old university counselor who used to watch Dice-K play with his former baseball team, the Seibu Lions. "And the younger generation here can relate to him better. I have big hopes for him."
At 6 a.m. Ishimaru, a 30-year-old technology worker, kept his eyes glued to the televisions, even after Dice-K left the mound after the seventh inning. Ishimaru had to be at work in a few hours but said he was unfazed about facing a day at the office after going sleepless. Wearing a denim jacket and leather pants, Ishimaru said he's already trying to plot a way to see Matsuzaka pitch in the United States.
"I'm more focused on Major League Baseball these days," said Ishimaru, who followed Matsuzaka through spring training, which was also broadcast in Japan. "It's already been proven that Japanese players like Ichiro can be one of the best hitters. Now I want to see us pitch as well."
Smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes, Ochi, the financial analyst, leaned back in his stool, saying he's pleased that Japan's pitching sensation signed with the Red Sox -- a competitive team in a strong division with top catchers such as Jason Varitek.
As the sun rose over Tokyo, the game ended with Ishimaru and Ochi the only two customers left in the bar. They agreed that the victorious Dice-K pitched well -- but he could still do better -- and that they are now definitely Red Sox fans.
"He still has more to show," Ochi said. "But pitching 7 innings with only one run and 10 strikeouts is more than enough for now."
Jenn Abelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.