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At home on the big stage

In career, persona, new Sox pitcher Matsuzaka an outsized presence

From Hokkaido to Kyushu, Daisuke Matsuzaka has been known as The Monster since he was a teenager, a larger-than-life presence at every stage of his career. At his old high school in Yokohama, the mound he used in practice is considered hallowed ground, not to be used by mere mortals.

"Kids say that it is Ace's mound and they stay away from using it," says coach Motonori Watanabe, whose players tell him they are awestruck when Matsuzaka comes back to visit. "It is one of those unwritten rules among the students."

Yet Japanese sportswriters and former teammates say that the Red Sox' new $100 million man is more like an oversized man-child, a playful (if not Mannyesque) sort who likes fast cars, dotes on his glamorous sportscaster wife, Tomoyo Shibata, and year-old daughter Niko, and goes to Tokyo barbecue restaurants to eat shabu-shabu. "He is friendly, outgoing, polite, confident, a little cocky," Wayne Graczyk , who has been covering baseball for the Japan Times for three decades, observed in an e-mail.

Even before he signed the richest major league contract of any Japanese player, the 26-year-old Matsuzaka was already a legend in his homeland after leading Yokohama to the national high school championship, the Seibu Lions to their first Japan Series title in 14 years, and the national team to an Olympic medal and victory in this year's World Baseball Classic.

"Right now, he is the hottest name in Japan," says Hideki Okuda, who follows the Seattle Mariners (specifically Ichiro Suzuki ) for Sports Nippon. "Maybe he is as famous in the same way that Magic Johnson was."

Yet unlike most American stars, Matsuzaka's fame largely has been confined to what he does inside the ballpark. "Like any Japanese ballplayer, his personal and private life are not that well known," says Graczyk. "The fans care about his pitching, not so much about his family."

Though the creature-comfort aspects of Matsuzaka's lifestyle have been well-noted in Japan -- his high-priced Tokyo apartment and his car collection, most notably a $130,000 Mercedes G-Class -- the media tend to leave him alone when he's out of uniform. "He thinks much of his personal life, so we respect his privacy," Takakazu Murata , who covers baseball for the Mainichi Shimbun, said in an e-mail.

What was most important, Matsuzaka said when his rights were put up for auction, was that his wife and daughter be comfortable wherever he ended up.

"I am a baseball player, and the place where baseball exists I can live," he said. "But if my family cannot support me enough, I cannot do my best. For their life, for me, I would like to find the best living environment."

The courting and signing of Matsuzaka was such a whirlwind that it's unclear where he'll live in the Boston area, whether he'll become part of the Japanese cultural community, and whether he'll go home in the offseason.

The biggest adjustment, as it has been for most of Matsuzaka's major league countrymen here, will be cultural. "The language was tough at first," acknowledges Akinori Otsuka , the Texas Rangers pitcher who urged Matsuzaka to learn English when they played together in the World Baseball Classic. "I can't listen or speak. I can't communicate with teammates. I just smile and say yes, yes. Smiling is very important, I think."

Smiling comes easily to Matsuzaka, whom former teammates describe as a delight to have around the clubhouse. "He was always laughing, smiling, having fun," says Tony Fernandez, the former Toronto Blue Jays star who played with Matsuzaka in 2000. The English will come eventually, helped by Shibata, who is said to be fluent.

What will be more familiar to Matsuzaka will be the cohort of several dozen Japanese journalists and camera crews that will chronicle him daily, as they do Suzuki and the Yankees' Hideki Matsui. "My company will send a person to cover him all year," says Yasuko Yanagita, who follows Matsui for the Hochi Shimbu. "I am pretty sure every newspaper will have a person."

Pack journalism will be nothing new for a man who has been in the middle of a daily media scrum since he turned professional and has handled it with aplomb. "He understands being under a microscope," says Scott McClain, who played four seasons with Matsuzaka before returning to the States. "He's dealt with it for eight years over there."

Performing in scarlet stockings before the most adoring, least forgiving fans in the game won't rattle him, either, say those who've followed him. "He knows how to deal with the pressure," says Okuda. "He pitched in the World Baseball Classic. He pitched in the Olympic Games twice. He helped win the championship for Seibu. He knows how to handle it."

Matsuzaka has been under the microscope ever since his astounding performance in the 1998 Koshien, the annual high school tournament that author Robert Whiting called "a celebration of the purity and spirit of Japanese youth" and that is followed as rabidly in Japan as March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament, is in the United States. "Without Koshien, the summer is not coming," says Yanagita. "It is one of the biggest pastimes for the people."

Matsuzaka, whose mother named him after Daisuke Araki, who was the Koshien star during her pregnancy, carried Yokohama to the title with his wondrous arm on three consecutive days. He pitched all 17 innings in the quarterfinals, came in from the outfield in the ninth to save the day in the semis, then threw a no-hitter in the final.

His Koshien heroics were all Seibu needed to put him in its blue-and-white uniform for the next season, when Matsuzaka struck out Suzuki three times in their first meeting and went on to win 16 games and be named Rookie of the Year. At 19, Matsuzaka already was being lionized. "He was essentially a god over there," says McClain. "Whenever Daisuke [pronounced Dice-kay] pitched, there were 20,000 people extra in the stands."

Everyone in the country had seen The Monster in the Koshien. Everyone could recognize him on the mound -- the bill of his cap tugged down nearly to his eyebrows, the face impassive, the hands held high over his head for the windup, the odd stutter step just before delivery. "Whenever he pitched, there was an excitement," says Fernandez. "People wanted to see the prodigy."

No Japanese hurler ever has sported such a varied and baffling repertoire of pitches, including a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, a slider, a changeup, a curve, and a sinker-style "shuuto." "He knows what he's doing with a ball in his hand," testifies McClain, who now plays for the Sacramento River Cats, an Oakland farm club.

From the start, Matsuzaka has been dominating without being domineering. The bigger the game, the more Matsuzaka seems to relish the challenge, especially if all of Japan is watching. "So far, no stage he's been on has frightened him," says Marty Kuehnert , assistant to the president of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, the Lions' Pacific League rivals.

It was inevitable, those who've watched him say, that The Monster would want to make his name -- and his fortune -- in America, as Suzuki and Matsui have before him. "He deserves a bigger stage and he wants a bigger stage," says Kuehnert. "It's not just about the money."

The only surprises were the $51 million posting fee ("that is an astronomical figure, and it's hard to make sense of it," says Watanabe) and Matsuzaka ending up in Boston. The Sox are known primarily as the Yankees' archenemies in Japan, where reversing the curse of the Bambino, with Matsui on the losing end, was not seen as a positive.

"Ordinary Japanese don't know well about the Red Sox," says Murata. "If they will be asked which player they know, most will give the name Babe Ruth."

In next year's opening series against Seattle in the Fens, Matsuzaka will get to go back in time, facing down Suzuki again. Ten days later, he'll see Matsui when New York comes to town. The Yankees, of course, are the Yomiuri Giants (Japan's evil empire) in pinstripes. "Daisuke is going to eat it up pitching against the Yankees," predicts McClain. "He knows how to put on a show."

Daigo Fujiwara of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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