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Wooing of pitcher was wowing

Sox had bases covered while chasing, landing Matsuzaka

The wooing of Daisuke Matsuzaka began with a small dinner party on a Saturday night at Tom Werner's house, a Cape Cod-style home overlooking the green at hole No. 5 at the famed Riviera Country Club, in the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles. Theo Epstein, the Red Sox general manager, had called Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras, ahead of time, to make sure the player had no dietary issues. He was told Matsuzaka loved seafood and vegetables.

So when they sat down together for the first time -- Werner, the Hollywood producer and team chairman, who had volunteered his West Coast home for the occasion, principal owner John W. Henry, CEO Larry Lucchino, Lucchino's friend, Dan Akimoto, a professor at Stanford and unofficial adviser, Epstein, and manager Terry Francona from the Red Sox side, and their guests, Matsuzaka, Boras, and two translators -- the menu prepared by Werner's personal chef was a blend of the two cultures represented.

Organic yellow miso soup with wild mushrooms. Mixed baby green salad with mint, pomegranate, and ginger soy dressing. Pan-seared Chilean sea bass with spicy lemongrass gastrique and jasmine rice. Filet mignon with red onion confit and wok-seared sesame haricot verts. Coconut macaroons with wild berries and satsuma tangerine coulis.

Werner, a 9-handicap golfer and a member at Riviera, learned that Matsuzaka loved to golf, and told him of how well Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield played and the terrific courses in the Boston area. Epstein tried to engage Matsuzaka in light conversation about the Red Sox, but felt that Matsuzaka's enthusiasm was tamped down in translation. He was struck by Matsuzaka's confidence -- Werner felt he was mature beyond his years -- but suspected he had been coached in some of his responses.

Francona, in his usual fashion, tried joking with Matsuzaka, but he seemed ill at ease, perhaps because in Japan, the relationship between player and manager is typically more distant and formal.

Werner walked into his living room and came back with a replica of the World Series trophy the Sox had won in 2004. We hope, he said to Matsuzaka, that you can help us win another of these. Matsuzaka smiled.

There were gifts for Matsuzaka, his wife Tomoyo, and young daughter. Most had a Red Sox or Boston motif. One was a children's book written by the Red Sox wives.

There also was a gift for Boras, who later would describe the gathering as almost quaint. Werner presented him with a clock.

"We wanted to remind him that time was ticking on our negotiations," Werner said. "Before I handed it to him, I put it to my ear, to let him know that it wasn't a time bomb.

"Scott laughed."

Some bold moves
"When Leslie Epstein's 28-year-old son became general manager of the Red Sox," Henry said at last Thursday's news conference announcing Matsuzaka's signing in the State Street Pavilion at Fenway Park, a spacious suite barely able to contain a media crush of 300 and their TV cameras, popping flashbulbs, and breathless narrators from here and Japan, "he gave him two words of advice: Be bold."

But the morning before, as he sat on a southern California runway in Henry's private plane, a Dassault Mystere 900 Tri-jet, waiting to see if Matsuzaka and Boras would indeed show up to fly back with the Sox' traveling party to Boston, the thoughts of a sleepless Epstein drifted not to his father but to his grandfather, Philip, and Philip's twin brother, Julius, the famed screenwriters. An airfield, a small plane, the uncertainty of who would get on the plane -- Epstein could not help but think of "Casablanca".

The story of how Matsuzaka, a 26-year-old pitcher who is mostly a mystery to the baseball fan in the United States but has had Michael Jordan-like status in his native Japan almost from the day he became a national hero as a high schooler, has played out for the last month mostly as a protracted financial negotiation. It culminated with Matsuzaka coming to terms with the Red Sox on a six-year, $52 million contract that they signed Thursday afternoon shortly before the news conference. While Boras completed the paperwork, finalizing the handshake agreement they had made the night before while Matsuzaka was undergoing his physical at Massachusetts General Hospital, Matsuzaka was being guided through the Red Sox clubhouse by the owners. He broke into an enormous smile when he saw a locker with "Matsuzaka" on the nameplate and a Sox jersey bearing his No. 18 hanging inside.

But that is not the end of the story of how the Sox acquired Matsuzaka, just the beginning. The tale that emerges goes well beyond the dollars and cents (and $12 billion yen, the total outlay for the Sox in terms of their winning posting bid of $51.1 million and the $52 million contract). If Epstein ever decided to write a book about this saga, he told an acquaintance, he could become a very rich man. There are, of course, the nitty-gritty details of the high-stakes negotiations between the Sox and Boras, who had the Sox on more than one occasion in the final hours believing the deal would not get done.

Lots to chew over
Like last Tuesday night, when the Sox party was having dinner at Roy's in Newport Beach, Calif., shortly after they'd met with Matsuzaka and Boras in the agent's office and the agent had crisply informed them that their offer -- a drop-dead, take-it-or-leave-it offer -- wasn't good enough. Epstein tried to keep his companions' spirits up, but Werner, like Henry back at his home in Boca Raton, Fla., was all but resigned to no deal. Craig Shipley, the Sox' director of international scouting who had not been at Boras's office but was with the Sox party, asked what Matsuzaka's reaction was to the offer. He was stone-faced, Werner told him disconsolately.

Shipley had the opposite reaction. "We're going to get this deal done," he said, "because that's the way he looks when he pitches."

There is an old-fashioned baseball story to be told, too, about a couple of Australian-born scouts, Shipley and Jon Deeble, who dedicated huge chunks of the last three years to this quest. The home videos they sent back to Yawkey Way from Japan also provided the comic relief, like the one in which they're trying to buy subway fare and don't have a single yen between them. And a former Yankee intern of Japanese descent, Masai Takahashi, who played a critical role in helping the Sox land their man. It was Takahashi, the trainer for the Portland Sea Dogs, the Sox farm team, who joined Deeble and Shipley in Japan in September, when they were intensifying their efforts to learn all they could about Matsuzaka and translated Japanese media reports and other sources for information on what other teams might bid. And it was Takahashi who last week helped Epstein translate the contract offers he was making into Japanese, so Matsuzaka could review them, too.

Deeble, coach of the Australian national team, first saw Matsuzaka in 1998, the same year he threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning game in the national high school tournament, an event Boras describes as equivalent to the Final Four in US college basketball but exponentially bigger. The first game he saw Matsuzaka pitch was a complete-game shutout; needless to say his scouting report was as positive as it would be six years later, when Matsuzaka would strike out 14 against Australia in the Athens Olympics, including former big leaguer Dave Nilsson.

And it was Deeble, who with Shipley had to repair relations with ball clubs in Japan shattered by the dubious business practices of the previous Red Sox regime. When Shipley and Deeble first started scouting Matsuzaka in earnest three years ago, the Seibu Lions refused to provide the customary courtesy tickets because they were with the Sox. "We had to win back trust," Shipley said, "and Deebs was a big part of that."

There is also a spy-novel quality to the extraordinary lengths to which the Sox went to keep their quest secret. When Henry decided to send his plane to southern California last Monday, the Red Sox logo on the plane's tail was covered. Shipley, who lives in Florida and got on the plane in Boca Raton, picked up Lucchino and Epstein at Hanscom Field in Bedford. The flight plan showed the plane was going not to California but to Houston -- all the better to make snooping eyes believe they were headed for a meeting with the agents for Roger Clemens. And when they arrived at the Marriott Suites in Costa Mesa, they all checked in under assumed names -- the names of Shipley's high school mates back in Australia.

There is, of course, a part of the story that must wait to be told, the one told through the eyes of Matsuzaka, whose first public statements in Boston were mangled beyond comprehension by a Boras-hired translator who succumbed to the pressure. There was no mistaking, however, Matsuzaka's delight at the standing ovation he received at TD Banknorth Garden Thursday night when he dropped the first puck at the Bruins-Devils game.

But if the absence of Matsuzaka's reflections make this story an incomplete one, there is still enough to understand why Epstein says he never has had more fun in baseball than in the pursuit of Dice-K.

Crafting a bid
They were together in the Sox offices at Yawkey Way, watches synchronized. On Nov. 8, at precisely 4:58 p.m, two minutes before the deadline for submitting bids on Matsuzaka, Sylvia Moon, special assistant to Henry, and Epstein placed a sheet of paper into a fax machine to send to Moises Rodriguez, an official who works in Major League Baseball's international operations, at his office at 245 Park Avenue in New York.

It was no accident the Sox waited until the last moment to submit their $51.1 million bid. Call it paranoia, call it well-placed fear, but the Sox were taking no chances the posting process might be rigged. They possessed information that the assistant general manager for one major league team had made four trips to Japan in an attempt to see officials of the Seibu team that had "posted" Matsuzaka's services, making him eligible to play in the States.

They decided they would have to bid high because of their fears there might be an artificially high bid by a team that had an under-the-table agreement with Seibu. At the same time, Epstein chafed at the potential embarrassment if it turned out their bid would be more than double the next highest bid.

The actual number itself had come out of a late-night conversation Epstein had had the night before with Henry. The Sox owner does not consider himself superstitious, but in this instance -- perhaps heartened by the fact that he and Matsuzaka share the same birthday, Sept. 13 -- he decided to play a number, 11, that had worked for him in the past. When he'd first set out to buy the Sox, and did not want that to be known, Henry made it a point to be identified to bankers and other investors only as "Number 11." So when it came time to craft the bid for Matsuzaka, Henry added as many 11's as he could, making the final bid $51,111,111.11.

No one, including Epstein, wrote it down until the final moment. The number of people who knew it was kept at an absolute minimum. And they weren't taking any chances on a faulty fax machine, either. Stationed at MLB offices, cellphone ready, was Brian O'Halloran, the team's director of baseball operations. A minute or so after 5, Henry and Lucchino, who were in New York, strolled into MLB's office. They were hoping to find out if they had won. No such luck.

Shipley was in the Tokyo Dome the next day, watching the Asia Series that matches the Asian champions, when agent Don Nomura, who had devised the strategy 10 years earlier that allowed Hideo Nomo to escape Japan by "voluntarily retiring" so he could sign with the Dodgers, strolled over to his seat. "I just heard the Yankees won the bidding," Nomura told him. For a moment, Shipley was crushed. Then it occurred to him: When MLB passed on the highest bid to Seibu, it was only the number, not the name of the team that bid. So if Seibu didn't know, Nomura didn't either.

Shipley was in Taiwan with Deeble, watching another tournament, when the call came from Epstein, who had just heard from Sox ownership. Boston had made the highest bid. "I joked," Shipley said, "that we had just gotten through the hard part -- or the hard part was yet to come. We found out it was still to come."

Formidable opponent
Boras had tracked Matsuzaka with as much zeal as the Sox had. By his estimate, he had seen Matsuzaka pitch 15 times, and he and his top aide, Mike Fiore, had made multiple trips to Japan. This would be his first major foray into representing Japanese players, and Boras was going after the best.

From the beginning, "the elephant in the room," as he called it, was the posting bid, money he believed would be better served going into his client's pockets than those of Seibu. Because the Sox had exclusive rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka, Boras could not play one team off another. To maximize the deal, he had to create a perception, and the one he sought to create was that Matsuzaka was an elite player and therefore should be paid like one, which in a baseball market flush with cash meant he should be paid like Roy Oswalt, who had just signed a four-year deal for $70 million, or maybe even be paid more.

It did not matter whether Boras truly believed a foreign pitcher who had not thrown a pitch in the big leagues deserved to be paid like a free agent. What mattered is whether the Sox thought that's what he believed, and that he was in a position to persuade Matsuzaka to go back to Japan rather than settle for less. What mattered most to Boras was to protect Matsuzaka's status as an icon in Japan; the Sox had to understand (and Shipley had been pounding this into the owners for weeks) that Matsuzaka was special, and that Boras was determined that he be accorded equivalent respect. And he also was determined that he would do everything in his power to maximize Matsuzaka's chances to succeed.

About two weeks ago, the Sox made their first offer to Matsuzaka, a six-year, $36 million deal. Boras did not respond. He spoke only in generalities; Henry became convinced Boras was trying to "run out the clock."

Last Sunday in a conference call, the decision was made to fly to California the next day on Henry's plane. Shipley would go with Lucchino and Epstein; Takahashi would fly in from Las Vegas; and Werner would drive down from LA. Should they call and let Boras know they were coming? Lucchino and Epstein both said no. Call from the plane. Forget it, they decided. Let's just show up.

The plan was to have dinner with Boras that Monday night, and perhaps Matsuzaka, but Boras told them Matsuzaka was sick. When the agent then held a news conference that afternoon, once again positioning himself as championing the rights of the Japanese player, the Sox brass, which had laid low in the media, decided it had to counter. Epstein told the Japanese media it seemed like "destiny" for Matsuzaka to pitch for the Sox, and what a "shame" it would be if something unforeseen would get in the way of that happening.

The implication, of course, is that the "unforeseen" element was Boras's intransigence.

Fascinating end game
The next day, the Sox presented an improved offer -- six years for $48 million. It was rejected. Then came the evening session at Boras's office, one in which Matsuzaka was kept out of sight of the waiting media in the back of a car and hustled in through a back door. The Sox tried to hand the Japanese translation of their final offer -- the six-year, $52 million deal -- directly to Matsuzaka; that elicited an angry response from Boras.

The Sox were sent to a nearby conference room to await Boras's reply. When it came, it was the same: No deal.

After dinner, the Sox returned to their hotel. Boras called Epstein. Could the two of them meet alone, he asked. He wanted to make a counteroffer. If it was for more money, don't bother, Epstein said. Boras came, and the counteroffer was indeed for more cash: $66 million for six years. He also spoke for the first time about the added benefits he wanted -- the flights, the translator, the masseuse, and the housing perks. The Sox quickly agreed to all of them. They'd come prepared to give him anything he asked -- except for more money. No-trade clause? Shoot, the Sox figured, if they were changing continents, they'd want a no-trade clause, too.

Boras headed back to his office around 4:30 in the morning without a deal. Matsuzaka had to be on the plane taking them back to Boston at 9 so he could have a physical, Epstein said, or there would be no deal. To himself, he thought, there's no way I leave without the player. Maybe we take off and circle back; maybe the plane takes off but he stays to talk more; maybe they sit.

None of them slept except Lucchino and Shipley, who got maybe an hour apiece. They had checked out of the hotel and Shipley and Epstein were in the car when they called Boras and asked them again to be at the airport. Boras said no. Lucchino got into the car, and they decided to call one more time, but this time delivering the message with more urgency. Be there, or no deal.

Finally, a breakthrough: Boras said there were a couple of things he wanted to talk about in the awards package, but if the Sox would talk about those things in good faith, they'd be there. "If he was on the plane," Shipley said, "we had a deal."

This was around 8 a.m. Around 8:45, the Sox party was already on the plane when Boras, Fiore, and Matsuzaka arrived. As Boras walked past Epstein, he said, "Congratulations."

Shipley, for the first time, shook hands with his personal Holy Grail. "It's a pleasure," he said, "to finally meet you."

Back in Boston, people tracked the progress of his flight on the Internet. Matsuzaka, who also had not slept all night, ate breakfast -- an American breakfast. Then he put blinders on and went to sleep. Whether he dreamed, we'll have to await his answer. But when he awoke, his world was not the same as it had been before he closed his eyes.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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