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ON BASEBALL

Fact plus fiction, it's a great story

First of all, let's drop all talk of the "gyroball," the wonder pitch Daisuke Matsuzaka is said to throw.

He doesn't. No pro, here or in Japan, has been documented as throwing one. It's appeared only in anime, Japanese animation.

"It's somebody's idea of a joke," Robert Whiting said with a chuckle over the phone from Japan. "A couple of Japanese guys did a comic story about Matsuzaka's 'pitch,' and a guy wrote a story about it on Yahoo, and that's how it got started. You can find a clip on YouTube where he's supposed to be throwing the pitch. He's throwing a slider, and somebody said it was the gyro."

Jeff Passan was "the guy" who wrote about it for Yahoo.com. He's the national baseball columnist for Yahoo.com., and he actually asked Matsuzaka about the pitch at the World Baseball Classic this spring. Two Japanese scientists used computer simulations to develop the pitch, which has a bulletlike spin and a late lateral break.

Matsuzaka was highly amused by the conversation, but in the end admitted he didn't throw one, but oh, he might work on one in the future.

And so an urban legend grew.

"Remember Sidd Finch?" Whiting said, referring to the legendary creation of writer George Plimpton who was said to have developed a 180-mile-an-hour fastball in the Himalayas and wound up some years ago on the cover of Sports Illustrated (April Fool's edition). "Same category."

Disappointed? Don't be.

"Matsuzaka doesn't need the gyro," Whiting said. "He throws a slider and forkball and changeup and fastball and curve. He throws them all with great control and great command."

Whiting is an American journalist and author based in Japan. His best-selling book, "You Gotta Have Wa" ("Wa" being the Japanese term meaning unity and team spirit), established him as the foremost Western authority on Japanese baseball. He followed that book up with "The Meaning of Ichiro," which documents the startling transformation of Japanese baseball from poor cousin to the major leagues to a valuable source of premium talent. Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui all have been impact players.

And now there is Matsuzaka, whose pending departure to this side of the International Date Line has held his home nation in thrall.

"You can't help but follow it," Whiting said. "It's plastered all over the news. It's the big news in all the sports dailies and every website.

"The Red Sox faked everybody out."

Most everybody in Japan, Whiting said, assumed that the Yankees would emerge as the highest bidder for Matsuzaka's services, and that he would be joining Matsui, who turned down the highest contract offer in Japanese history (six years, $64 million) to leave the Yomiuri Giants, the Bronx Bombers of Japan, and become a Yank.

Matsuzaka's defection, Whiting said, may not be in the class of Ichiro and Matsui, but it's in the ballpark.

"This is pretty big," he said. "There hasn't been a pitcher like Matsuzaka in a generation, since Nomo. And he's better than Nomo was in his prime. His control is better, he's just as fast, and he has more pitches than Nomo."

Whiting, like the rest of the rational world, was bemused by the price the Sox were willing to pay for Matsuzaka. The risk of the deal, in his eyes, is his belief that Japanese pitchers break down faster than their Western counterparts because of the amount of throwing they do. When he was 17, Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning game in the quarterfinals of the national high school tournament. This season, he threw a Pacific League-leading 14 complete games for the Seibu Lions.

He's already had arm trouble once in his career, missing most of the 2002 season with an elbow injury, but obviously came back stronger than ever.

"Matsuzaka threw 350 pitches in one day in spring training this year," Whiting said. "He did the same thing the year before.

"I'm sure in high school he threw 100 pitches a day."

It's a philosophical thing. Practices in Japan are designed to teach patience and perseverance -- "doryoku" (effort).

"You throw until you can't throw anymore," Whiting said. "The Japanese believe it builds up stamina, strengthens your arm, but it also helps develop your fighting spirit."

Matsuzaka pitched every sixth day for Seibu this season, a concession, it would appear, to his high pitch counts.

"You have to wonder," Whiting said. "I guess the Red Sox will pay around $100 million to find out."

The Red Sox don't need to sign Matsuzaka to establish a presence in Japan, Whiting said. Aaron Boone's "sayonara" home run in Matsui's first season, 2003, was watched by millions, and Matsui was in line to be ALCS MVP until the Sox staged the Comeback of '04. David Ortiz's 514-foot home run in the Tokyo Dome on a big leaguers' tour after the World Series enhanced the Sox image even further.

But there is money to be made. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Whiting said, estimated that Ichiro's presence in a Mariners uniform added $20 million to the local economy, much of it coming from the Japan tour groups organized to see Ichiro in his new digs. The dollars may have been even greater in New York.

And what of the burden this places on Matsuzaka, who before throwing a pitch in the big leagues will carry what might be as much as a $100 million price tag on his Sox cap? This may be the real "gyroball" in Matsuzaka's repertoire: his makeup.

This guy has been facing extraordinary pressure since the national high school tournament, which is the biggest baseball event in the country, a two-week series involving 49 teams.

"He's very composed, as cool as a cucumber," said Whiting, a Matsuzaka-watcher for years. "I think he'd find this all a bit amusing. He's the kind of guy, when if it's the bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded, there's a 3-and-2 count and everybody else is shaking from the pressure, he's standing there on the mound, with a smirk on his face.

"He's just got it."

For what the Sox are paying, he'd better.

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