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Pitcher gets taste of the US

Sox brass flies out to dine with Matsuzaka

From the team that made a working dinner out of Thanksgiving (Curt Schilling) and conducted high-wire negotiations on a Dominican airport tarmac (Pedro Martínez) comes news of another potentially portentous meeting with an ace pitcher, one in which the Red Sox rolled out all the top brass for their first face-to-face with Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, who lives in Malibu, Calif., played host to the Japanese pitcher and his agent, Scott Boras, Saturday night at a dinner attended by principal owner John W. Henry, CEO Larry Lucchino, general manager Theo Epstein, and manager Terry Francona, all of whom traveled across the country for the occasion. No details on the menu, but Boras called the occasion "purely social, almost quaint, and well done."

There are 23 days left in the 30-day window the Sox have to negotiate with Matsuzaka after their $51.1 million bid to talk with him was accepted last Tuesday night by his Japanese team, the Seibu Lions. But Werner, like Boras, said the meeting was not about business.

"It was important for us to show Matsuzaka respect," Werner said by phone last night. "We thought it appropriate to give him a sense of how much appreciation we have for starting the process, and to show him we care a lot about making him feel comfortable about the organization in Boston."

The dinner appeared to have its desired effect, judging by the comments Matsuzaka made to about 100 Japanese reporters at the Staples Center after watching a Lakers game with Boras from front-row seats Sunday night.

"I was surprised to have a dinner with them," Matsuzaka said in comments translated by Gaku Tashiro, a veteran baseball reporter for Sankei Sports. "Meeting the Boston owner, GM, and the manager is the most impressive thing during this trip. I feel close to becoming a major league player."

For all the positive vibes generated by the dinner, negotiations on a contract may yet take on a different tenor. Neither side is willing to discuss publicly the course talks are taking, but it should not be considered a fait accompli that Matsuzaka will be in a Boston uniform next season. Do the Red Sox want him? Absolutely. Does the player want to play in the major leagues? No doubt.

Are there considerable obstacles to a deal? Yes, the primary one being a difference of opinion in how Boras believes his client should be paid and how the Sox calculate his value. Boras is expected to seek a contract similar to that given the elite pitchers in the majors today, which means at least eight figures a year, and he probably will want a clause making Matsuzaka a free agent after just three years, perhaps four at the most.

The Sox, meanwhile, are expected to argue that just as the Yankees didn't pay Hideki Matsui like a Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, neither should the Sox be expected to pay top dollar to a pitcher who has yet to prove himself against major league competition.

Who has the leverage? If Matsuzaka doesn't sign, he must return to Seibu, although it's conceivable Boras might be willing to challenge the posting system itself, or find a way to negotiate with Seibu to grant Matsuzaka complete free agency -- for a price. The Sox, meanwhile, would be missing out on a chance to upgrade their staff with a young top-of-the-rotation ace whose talents can't be matched by other available options on the market.

Matsuzaka returned to Japan yesterday. While here, he also had dinner with another Japanese player whose transition to the major leagues has been an uneven one, infielder Kaz Matsui, who signed with the Mets to considerable fanfare but was traded to the Colorado Rockies. Matsuzaka, like Matsui, has a wife and young daughter, and discussed with both his friend and Sox officials the challenges of making such a major move.

"Kaz's daughter had a tough time adjusting to the US," Matsuzaka said, "but he said my daughter will be OK because she is much younger [11 months]."

Matsuzaka also toured a couple of training facilities in Southern California where he might choose to work out if he signs with the Sox. He also said that after visiting Nike headquarters in Oregon last week, he intends to wear a newly designed shoe next season.

"Because of the different surface between Japanese and US pitcher's mounds, I am going to improve my spikes, which have a different length and number of blades," he said.

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