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Catching a lot of attention

Matsuzaka's tosses become media event

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Accidental fame doesn't give you much of a heads-up.

You can be minding your own business one minute, sweating up a storm while doing your job. The next minute, your face is being transmitted halfway across the world, like you're the next Elvis or something.

"Elvis Presley? Wow," George Kottaras said yesterday. "It was . . . The guy just wanted to play catch."

Kottaras is still at the point in his career where his name is a line in "Transactions."

BOSTON, Aug. 31 -- Red Sox trade David Wells to the San Diego Padres for Triple A catcher George Kottaras.

But for the 15 minutes Daisuke Matsuzaka needed someone he could throw a baseball to, Kottaras unexpectedly found himself on the receiving end of international celebrity. The gloves went on, and so did the cameras.

Had he ever experienced anything like it?

"For a game of catch?" Kottaras said. "No, not really."

It was Matsuzaka's first day in Red Sox training camp. It hasn't officially opened yet, but that was of no consequence to the paparazzi assembled to record the moment -- 12:01 p.m., a minute later than the Sox estimated -- when the Japanese pitcher pulled into the parking lot in a black Cadillac Escalade. Matsuzaka was behind the wheel, though surely the Sox, who have thought of everything else, would have furnished him with a driver. He drove in just behind Sachiyo "Sachi" Sekiguchi, the new Japanese media liaison. Sachi was in the gray Nissan. A man from Matsuzaka's marketing firm in Japan, Architect Inc., rode shotgun with the pitcher.

The first man to greet Matsuzaka was Charles Cellucci, the former deputy superintendent of the Boston Police Department who heads the Sox security detail. Matsuzaka, wearing a gray T-shirt, gray shorts, black Nikes, and carrying a black gym bag with the familiar swoosh on the side, followed him through the front door of the facility, which was deserted except for a handful of players.

One of those players was Kottaras, the 23-year-old catcher who is viewed by the Sox as a candidate to succeed Jason Varitek one day, but not this year. Come Opening Day, Kottaras, who is from Toronto and had sufficient Greek ancestry to play for the motherland in the 2004 Athens Olympics, figures to be in Pawtucket, catching every day.

Yesterday, Kottaras had been working all morning on catching drills with Gary Tuck, the new Sox bullpen coach, when Edward "Pookie" Jackson, one of the Sox clubhouse men, stuck in his head and said Matsuzaka was looking for someone to play catch with.

" 'OK,' I said," Kottaras said. " 'It doesn't matter. I'll do it.' "

Joe Cochran, the Sox equipment manager, gave Matsuzaka a quick tour of the clubhouse, and Matsuzaka would later tell Japanese reporters he was pleased to learn that his locker was next to that of Varitek, his favorite player, with Hideki Okajima, Boston's other Japanese import, on Matsuzaka's other side.

In the meantime, Sox media relations boss John Blake gave the green light to security guards to allow reporters, who had been waiting in the parking lot all morning, to enter the facility. The cameras were thus in place when Matsuzaka, who had by this time changed into a red Red Sox shirt and shorts, came out the back door, with Cochran, Jackson, and . . . George Kottaras.

Matsuzaka took a quick scan of the five practice fields, then stepped onto the field closest to the canal in which an alligator has recently taken up residence, according to a local TV cameraman.

With him was Kottaras. They stretched, Matsuzaka did some light jogging and twists, and then he grabbed a ball and trotted 20 yards or so from Kottaras. Originally, that was supposed to be the media's cue to depart; Matsuzaka had conveyed to the Sox that he wanted his first game of catch to be private. But, evidently, he relented, because for the next 10 minutes or so, a ball passed back and forth between the two rookies -- the catcher making the big league minimum, the pitcher with a $103 million price tag hanging from his sleeve. Kottaras said the sound of whirring cameras never stopped.

The casual catch, of course, was just a warmup for a session of long toss, but that's when the media were ushered out.

A little later, Kottaras was back inside with a small group of Boston reporters, none of whom he'd met before. The niceties out of the way, they asked him, of course, about Matsuzaka.

"He seems like he is a great guy," Kottaras said, "just playing catch with him. He's smiling at me. We were having fun with it."

A couple of years ago in the Padres' camp, Kottaras had picked up a couple of Japanese phrases from Akinori Otsuka, the relief pitcher now with the Texas Rangers. He tried them out on Matsuzaka. Konnichiwa (good afternoon), he nailed. He stumbled a bit, though, when he said, "Moshi moshi." Matsuzaka made a gesture like he was talking on the phone. "Moshi moshi" is how you say hello when you're on the horn.

"I've got to go out there and get a Japanese translator," said Kottaras, presumably referring to one of those hand-held devices, not the human variety.

The only English Matsuzaka tried on Kottaras? He said, "Sorry," after Kottaras had to reach a bit for one of his throws.

"I'm like, 'Don't be sorry,' " Kottaras said.

Kottaras mentioned how easygoing Matsuzaka seemed to be, how he projected a sense of knowing what he was doing. The conversation drifted back to all the attention he'd gotten that day.

Wright Thompson of ESPN the Magazine, who did a NASCAR number across Alligator Alley to get here in time, wondered whether Kottaras had glanced into a mirror before going out onto the field, maybe put on a little pomade.

"I was all sweaty," Kottaras said. "Pomade? No, I put on a hat."

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