TOKYO - As soon as Daisuke Matsuzaka walked off the field at the Tokyo Dome yesterday afternoon, he was surrounded. Crushed, perhaps, by a cavalcade of media, cameras, and flashbulbs. And it wasn't even the first time he had addressed them that day. Even with his 15-minute press conference two hours earlier, the Japanese media were hanging on his every word, a lot like they were last season when Matsuzaka strolled into spring training and into the mob.
His return to Japan, of course, is just as important.
"I think we all knew Dice was very popular in Japan, but when we got off the plane yesterday I thought there was just a light problem with the elevators," Mike Lowell joked. "It was all the camera flashes when he was walking out."
So, yes, he is loved. Exalted, perhaps. It will be a major event here when Matsuzaka takes the mound Tuesday in the season opener against Oakland because everyone in Japan seems to know his name. They all follow him. They all want to see him do well. (Or, at least, the vast majority.)
His Red Sox teammates seemed to get that message. They already had seen Matsuzaka's reception when he arrived last season, and that was reinforced by their view of his return appearance, or at least the beginning of it, when they headed off their charter plane upon arrival. It stands to reason, though, that nothing will top the ovation when he takes the field to start the opening game, a definite honor, even if it's because of Josh Beckett's lower-back injury.
"I guess we won't actually be able to tell how my teammates will react until we all take the field, but on the bus on the way to the hotel last night everybody was commenting - even sympathizing - as to how much attention I receive over here," said Matsuzaka, through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "For me, I guess it's not that much of a problem."
Apparently, he's gotten used to the hordes.
After they got the requisite questions out of the way, about the trip and whether he thought he would be pitching in Japan again so soon, the details of a reunion with his homeland, the queries turned. The issue of the day became Matsuzaka's pitch count, an extremely serious matter, especially to the people here.
There is pressure, it seems, from the Japanese public for Matsuzaka to pitch deep into the game. Yet Matsuzaka sounded as if he was putting similar pressure on himself. Or at least he understood the desire for him to pitch as much of the season opener as he could.
"The fans here expect me to go deep into the game," Matsuzaka said. "But even more so, I'm the one that expects that out of myself. Throughout spring training I've been very conscious of pitch counts and doing my best working around that. If I can keep focusing on the things I've been working on, I feel that I will naturally be able to go deep into games."
He said the team hasn't spoken with him regarding his pitch count. But he added that after he throws his next side session, there will be that discussion, even though the fastidious Red Sox already have a plan. And it's one that might not coincide with Matsuzaka's wishes.
"It's early in the season," said manager Terry Francona. "I think maybe that's where some of this is coming from. On March 25, pitchers aren't ready to go as deep as they will later in the season. I think what we've been talking about all spring is not doing something on March 25 that will have repercussions on Aug. 25. Our intent is to win the game. If we have to pull a pitcher an inning before because of the timing of the series, we will do that."
Even if that pitcher is Matsuzaka.
That won't make many people happy, Matsuzaka included. But, still, it seems a small price when there was a distinct chance not long ago that Matsuzaka wasn't going to make the flight to Tokyo. Because the due date of his son was originally March 19 (the child was born on the 15th), Matsuzaka's appearance in Japan was far from a guarantee.
"It was not easy leaving my newborn son behind and I certainly felt some sadness and loneliness parting ways with him," Matsuzaka said. "But my family were very supportive of me throughout this and they sent me off with very strong encouragement. So, all I can do is to do my best here and take that back to Boston."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.