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A stable force in Matsuzaka deal

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There are many fathers to the saga of how Daisuke Matsuzaka wound up with the Red Sox. Dan Okimoto is the only one born in a racetrack stable.

Okimoto's parents were Christian missionaries from Japan, living in California on temporary visas, when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States declared war on Japan. Returning to Japan was out of the question. In the hysteria that followed, Okimoto's father and pregnant mother were among the 120,000 people of Japanese descent herded into internment camps in World War II. While waiting to be shipped to the Poston Relocation Camp in Arizona, they were held on the grounds of the Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California.

"They made one of the stables a makeshift maternity ward," Okimoto said. "I was literally born in a stable. My parents named me Daniel, because of the metaphor of Daniel in the lion's den."

He chuckled. "You could say I got off to a fast start," he said. "The year I was born, 1942, was the Year of the Horse. Maybe I should have been named after a horse."

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino has been friends with Okimoto since they were classmates at Princeton. Okimoto roomed with Bill Bradley -- All-America basketball star, Rhodes Scholar, NBA player, and senator -- and later was a top policy adviser in Bradley's presidential campaign.

"Any time we think of doing something with a Japanese component," Lucchino said, "my first call is to Dan."

That was true in San Diego, when Lucchino was with the Padres and Okimoto spearheaded the team's doomed pursuit of Hideki Irabu, who insisted on pitching only for the Yankees even after the Padres acquired his rights. And it remained the case after the Sox entered a bid on Matsuzaka and Lucchino placed a call to Okimoto, who had overcome his humble origins -- the US government formally apologized for the internment in 1988 -- to become a professor of international studies at Stanford.

"I was working in my office last fall when Larry called," said Okimoto. "He said, 'Hey, Dan, we made a bid for Matsuzaka. If by chance we do win the posting, will you help us as an outside adviser to sign Matsuzaka, to help us develop our strategy?' "

Okimoto had gotten himself mixed up in baseball by chance. He'd been visiting San Diego, where he was raised after his family was released from the camp, and saw a picture of Lucchino in the paper. "I hadn't seen him since we were undergraduates at Princeton," he said. "I didn't realize he was president of the Padres.

"The next day, we had lunch."

It was over lunch that Okimoto agreed to help Lucchino and the Padres find a Japanese player who might be as successful as Hideo Nomo was at the time with the Padres' biggest rival, the Dodgers. Okimoto protested that he didn't follow the Japanese leagues, but Lucchino persisted and Okimoto agreed to launch a search.

On a subsequent trip to Japan, Okimoto sought out some acquaintances among the owners of Japanese teams. He also looked up Wally Yonamine, a Japanese-American raised in Hawaii who won a batting title for the Yomiuri Giants, managed in the Japan leagues, and is one of only a handful of non-Japanese in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

Yonamine recommended Irabu, who at the time was shattering all of Nomo's records in Japan, had been clocked with a fastball as high as 99 miles per hour, and had expressed a strong desire to play in the United States, even though he was still a year away from being granted free agency. Okimoto composed the letter from Lucchino and the Padres that was sent to Akio Shigemitsu, the CEO of the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Japanese team for which Irabu played, telling of San Diego's interest in the player should Chiba Lotte decide to grant him an early release.

"I told Larry it was critical that he go to Japan in person," Okimoto said. "I told him it may be a wild goose chase, but it would show his sincerity of purpose if he came to Japan to talk to Chiba Lotte."

Lucchino went to Japan, several times. But in the end, even though Chiba Lotte agreed to sell his rights to the Padres, it did become a wild goose chase. Irabu balked at playing for any major league team other than the Yankees, a big legal battle ensued that would eventually draw in the major league players' union, and an exasperated Lucchino and the Padres finally gave up and traded Irabu to the Yankees for minor league prospects.

"I was crushed at the time," Okimoto said. "I felt like all our efforts had come to naught."

It wasn't a total loss. Irabu was a bust for the Yankees. The Padres used Rafael Medina, one of the prospects they'd gotten from the Yankees, to trade for Kevin Brown, who pitched San Diego into the World Series in 1998. That was also the year that Okimoto, who had developed a keen interest in baseball, spotted Matsuzaka for the first time. He saw him on TV in a United Airlines lounge at Tokyo's Narita Airport while waiting for a flight, pitching in the Koshien high school tournament that would make him a national hero.

Okimoto immediately called Lucchino and urged him to make a bid for the 18-year-old phenom, evidently unaware, Lucchino said later, that Major League Baseball's agreement with Japanese baseball precluded the Padres from taking a run at a Japanese high schooler. Undeterred, Okimoto gave Lucchino a piece of advice.

"Think about him 10 years from now," he told Lucchino, "when he becomes a free agent."

Okimoto reminded Lucchino of that conversation last November, eight years later, at the introductory dinner Sox chairman Tom Werner hosted for Matsuzaka at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., an event for which Okimoto spent the afternoon prepping Sox management on how best to make a favorable impression on the star pitcher. He urged them to show their human side, talk about their lives and businesses, and to demonstrate the depth of their commitment to the Red Sox.

"The key thing," Okimoto said, "was to come across as genuine people at the dinner. They did a brilliant job.

"Matsuzaka was reserved and pretty quiet at the start of the dinner. He was on his toes, careful about what he said. But he loosened up enormously, and absolutely beamed at the end when the gifts were brought out and presented to him."

That dinner, Okimoto believes, was a "seminal event" in the wooing of Matsuzaka. But he did not relax until Lucchino called him from John Henry's plane on a runway at John Wayne Airport, where he and general manager Theo Epstein were waiting, to say that Matsuzaka and his agent, Scott Boras, had agreed to fly back with them to Boston.

The race was won. For Okimoto, there was sweet satisfaction. This saga, he said, should have a much happier ending than the Irabu affair.

"There is the issue of what I call a frenzy of expectation, that Matsuzaka is somehow a baseball messiah," Okimoto said. "Should Matsuzaka hit a tough spell, lose a couple of games in a row, or doesn't blow hitters away, there needs to be a psychological bracing against that type of contingency.

"But Matsuzaka won't buckle easily under pressure he has known since he pitched in high school under the spotlight of national television. What struck me when I met him at dinner was that he was quietly strong, a resilient individual, a very emotionally stable person.

"When I asked him what some of his interests were away from baseball, he said, 'I'm basically a boring family guy. I like to go home and spend time with my wife and daughter. That's what gives me enormous joy, and energizes me.'

"Not many ballplayers say that and mean it, especially the ones who are treated like demigods. But he was not at all trying to put on airs, or create a false image of himself. I could tell just by looking at him, and how he spoke, that he was a humble, down-to-earth guy."

A quality, one can safely surmise, close to the heart of a man who was born in a stable.

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

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