The newest and most celebrated member of the Red Sox revealed a million-dollar smile -- multimillion-dollar, actually -- in the face of a flurry of flashbulbs yesterday. The cameras recording the official coronation of Daisuke Matsuzaka lit up his Fenway Park press conference like a swarm of fireflies.
Matsuzaka didn't appear to be the least bit uncomfortable; in fact, he looked downright elated. Wouldn't you be? He is worth $52 million, eclipsing Hideki Matsui as the most handsomely compensated Japanese player in the major leagues.
We'd love to share his pearls of wisdom, his hopes and dreams, his musings on Curt Schilling, Red Sox Nation, and Boston traffic, but alas these matters will take time. Matsuzaka was accompanied by an interpreter, but clearly most of his comments were lost in translation.
Consider this sampling:
Q: I'd like to get your impression of Fenway Park, after pitching off the mound, your initial impression of the park.
A: When the season starts, I'm looking forward to the game.
Now, I don't speak Japanese, but I know Matsuzaka said something more than that. His smile, his hand gestures, and his voice inflection suggested as much. The young pitcher appears to be animated, congenial, even playful.
But he also is in a country where he does not speak the language -- at all. That means he will be relying on someone to express his feelings, and that's a dicey proposition. He is about to immerse himself in a community that is as foreign to him as the streets of Tokyo would be to us. People born in this country have enough trouble learning the quirky ways of New Englanders. Factor in a language barrier, a cultural divide, and a little matter of having to perform on one of the most discerning -- not to mention relentless -- stages in baseball, and you hope this young pitcher can keep on smiling.
That, more than balls and strikes or balks and shutouts, presents the biggest challenge to Matsuzaka in Year One with the Red Sox.
We already know he's good. He has won at every possible level in Japan. His numbers in the World Baseball Classic (3-0 with a 1.38 ERA) were superb. General manager Theo Epstein yesterday said his newest acquisition had five pitches, then corrected himself and upgraded it to six.
"He is a surgeon on the mound," said Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras. "It's not just his power. He's almost like a surgeon with a chain saw."
A highly competitive elite athlete translates into any language and any culture. I'll be stunned if Matsuzaka is anything but successful in a loaded rotation that does not require him to be a 20-game winner right out of the box. It's a nice luxury to have Schilling and Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon watching your back. (Of course, with no closer in sight, are we sure Papelbon still is inked in as a starter? But then, I digress.)
Playing the game at the highest level is critical, but it does not guarantee happiness. Ask Alex Rodriguez. You've got to be part of the team, and the Red Sox must find a way to integrate their imported "national treasure" into the mix.
It helps that pitching coach John Farrell is learning Japanese. It doesn't hurt that Schilling has declared he'll do the same. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that Manny Ramírez has other items on his to-do list. I can't quite picture Beckett listening to any Berlitz tapes on his way to the park, either.
Somehow, some way, Matsuzaka must find a way to connect with his teammates, the way Matsui, who is genuinely beloved by his teammates, has in New York. It is an order that's unquestionably more difficult for a player who only performs once every five days.
"We've seen that with a number pitchers who have come over, who have had a slower adjustment period than one might want," said Sox president Larry Lucchino. "We're determined to keep working to make sure Daisuke continues to make those necessary adjustments.
"Being comfortable and relaxed is the first order of business when you are trying to be successful in sports."
The Yankees are one of many franchises that learned that the hard way. After engaging in a contentious battle with the Red Sox for the rights to Cuban star Jose Contreras, they watched in horror as a homesick and unhappy Contreras bombed in the Bronx.
Boston has endured its own disappointments. Hideo Nomo pitched for one year here in 2001 and hated it. As soon as he could, he hightailed it back to Los Angeles.
South Korean (and former Red Sox) pitcher Byung Hyun Kim was never embraced by his teammates, in part because of his almost maniacal approach to conditioning and training. His lack of comfort with speaking English certainly contributed to his woes, but his unwillingness to try some of the customs and interests of his fellow ballplayers also doomed him. When he was designated for assignment, his teammates cheered.
Asked if the team had learned anything from Kim's tenure, Lucchino answered, "We certainly learned you've got to be very diligent in trying to integrate these players into your team. We know there's work to be done."
At first glance, Matsuzaka doesn't strike me as dour or as stoic as Kim. Matsuzaka hustled out of Fenway and over to the Garden shortly after his press conference to drop the puck before the Bruins-Devils game. He handled his chores deftly, even though, according to the hordes of Japanese journalists who will be embedded here the next six years, hockey is not a popular sport in Japan, with play restricted mainly to the northern part of the country.
Matsuzaka will not be alone in Boston. Japanese reliever Hideki Okajima will be his teammate. The Red Sox will provide a personal trainer and a personal translator (one, we hope, who eschews cliches), and have agreed to provide Matsuzaka with 80 round-trip plane tickets to Japan. Matsuzaka's wife, Tomoyo, speaks fluent English, according to Boras, and has enjoyed a successful career both as a television broadcaster and a model. But can she find a comfort level that will convince her to make this her home for the next six years?
These are questions that cannot yet be answered.
"I want to make sure this young man with his extraordinary ability can transfer that ability to this country," Boras said. "That's not an easy step.
"The most concerning part was, and still is, the often difficult and important transition to a new culture."
Maybe by April Matsuzaka will be eating chowder with Papelbon at Game On. Maybe by May he'll be listening to loud, lousy music with Beckett before each game. Maybe by June he'll be playing hide-and-seek with Manny in the Wall.
I wanted to ask him about this yesterday. But then someone asked him if he had doubts that this day might ever come to pass.
The translated answer: "My nickname in Japan is The Monster."
Maybe I can car pool with Schilling to the language classes.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.