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Glare aside, Matsuzaka feels at home

For Daisuke Matsuzaka, the hardest thing hasn't been the language, food, ball, mound, catcher, manager, teammates, workout routine, hotel beds, neighborhood, TV channels, or the Hammond Parkway rotary.

Basically, it has all been good for Matsuzaka, who spent his first Fourth of July at Big Papi's barbecue and, if you watch him closely on the days he doesn't pitch, mouths the words of "Sweet Caroline" when Neil Diamond starts singing on the Fenway Park PA.

Ask him if there has been a single moment when he has regretted uprooting the familiar to come to the United States to pitch for the Red Sox, and he blinks uncomprehendingly. Not at the words -- translator Masa Hoshino, the Harvard man whose job description now includes jogging with Daisuke in the outfield, takes care of that part. At the notion.

"No," he says, Hoshino translating. "I haven't had any second thoughts. I'm probably the type of person that once I decide to do something, I do everything I can to achieve it."

The one thing that has blindsided him? He didn't anticipate that his privacy would be compromised to the degree it has.

This is a guy who has a private army of Japanese TV cameras, photographers, and reporters springing into action every time he changes hairstyles (the modified Mohawk is the current cut of choice). A guy who, with his TV celebrity wife, is Japan's version of David Beckham and Posh Spice.

Matsuzaka, the star of ads back in Japan for Toyota, Asahi Super Dry beer, Nike, and Aquarius Sports Drinks, among other products, has resisted doing one-on-one interviews with English-speaking media -- he finally made an exception in a half-hour sitdown with the Globe when the Sox were in Seattle recently -- but has otherwise handled the demands on his time at the ballpark with a grace Sox owner John W. Henry finds almost otherworldly.

Asked if he could withstand the kind of constant scrutiny directed at Matsuzaka, Henry said, "Probably not with the great attitude he shows. The attention is indicative of how popular he is. People care because he's so popular."

Intrusive attention
But some people have taken it to levels Matsuzaka says he seldom encountered in Japan -- to the extent that Matsuzaka recently discussed the issue with the Red Sox and his agent, Scott Boras.

"I think there have been a few cases where people have followed me as I was leaving the ballpark," he said, "and I was a little surprised when that happened because I thought that privacy was held much more sacred here than in Japan."

The ground rules here are different from what Matsuzaka knew in Japan. Nothing apparently has upset him more than when a Reuters photographer recently clicked a picture of his toddler daughter at Fenway Park and posted it on the wire, where it was picked up by both the Boston Herald and Boston.com. Never mind that at the All-Star Game in San Francisco this week, the Sox All-Stars with kids -- David Ortiz, Manny Ramírez, fellow Japanese pitcher Hideki Okajima, and Mike Lowell -- had them on the field, cameras clicking. Matsuzaka is adamant that his child be kept out of the public eye.

"I think the biggest challenge so far has been my goal to protect my privacy and my family's privacy," said Matsuzaka, whose parents and in-laws have come from Japan to see him here. "It's an important objective, but also one that is very challenging.

"When I go out and do get some attention when I'm by myself, it doesn't bother me so much. When I'm out with my family, that's when I'm a little bit more aware of the cost of things. And when I know that my family is out without me, that's when I'm a little worried."

Henry, who has demonstrated a similar commitment to shielding his daughter, said that when the Sox were negotiating with Matsuzaka last winter -- part of the $103 million price that brought him here from Japan -- that was the pitcher's foremost concern. "I've given some advice to his people," Henry said. "We're very similar in that regard."

Henry said his respect for Matsuzaka's privacy is one reason he has kept his distance from the pitcher, taking a much different approach than, say, Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley did 12 years ago when he befriended Hideo Nomo, the first Japanese star pitcher to come to the United States.

"I don't hang out with Daisuke," said Henry, who as owner of the Florida Marlins used to pal around with his players but has pulled back here. "He gets so many people wanting his attention that I just don't try to add to that."

Henry and Sox chairman Tom Werner did make one exception after Matsuzaka pitched the first complete game of his big league career at Fenway, beating the Detroit Tigers, 7-1, May 14.

"We were so proud of his accomplishment," Werner said, "that we went to the clubhouse and gave him the lineup card. He was very appreciative. I certainly think he's very aware of our feelings for him. I hope he knows, because we want him to feel he'll be part of our family for a long time."

A real ace
One of these days, Werner said, he'd like to go golfing with Matsuzaka, as fellow pitchers Tim Wakefield and Josh Beckett did in Toronto on the team's first trip there this spring, and as they and other teammates have since.

"He's gotten a standing invitation," Werner said. "I heard Matsuzaka's club speed at impact is 140 miles an hour. He's an outstanding golfer."

Ask Matsuzaka which he would choose if he could change places for one day with LeBron James, Jeff Gordon, or Tiger Woods, and he doesn't hesitate to answer. "Tiger Woods," he says, laughing at the question.

Jason Varitek, who dubbed Matsuzaka "Kumo" (Spider) because one of the T-shirts he wears while working out looks like something out of Spider-Man, doesn't golf. But at the ballpark, Varitek has spent more time with Matsuzaka than anyone else in uniform other than pitching coach John Farrell. In spring training, Varitek said, he and Matsuzaka had dinner at Cru, a popular Fort Myers, Fla., nightspot favored by the players. For the first couple of hours, he said, they did nothing but go over signs, which should not surprise anyone familiar with the catcher's zeal for preparation.

But Varitek soon discovered a playful side to Matsuzaka that in some ways has shaped their relationship.

"He seems to have a fun personality," Varitek said. "For some reason, with him I've had a joking personality from day one."

How have they managed to click that way? "Body language, expressions, through the interpreters -- we talk through them quite a bit," Varitek said.

"He seems to love the game. He's very perceptive about the game, the way he watches it. He's always supportive, even when he's not pitching. That kind of accountability sets a good example. It's good for the everyday players when people are like that.

"He's been a joy to be around."

Werner said he sees the same thing in the way Matsuzaka and Ortiz exchange exaggerated bows after the righthander pitches. There is a good-naturedness to Matsuzaka, Henry said, that reminds him of Ortiz. "He laughs easily, like David," Henry said. "He's very different than David, but he has that same good nature, he's positive. You can see he loves baseball and loves being here."

But Henry did not submit a $51.11 million posting fee, then ante up an additional $52 million to sign him, so Matsuzaka would contend for the "Good Guy" award, annually presented by the baseball writers. The owner framed the more pressing question himself in an e-mail to a reporter: "Was it worth $100m?"

Good start could be better

Matsuzaka, who will make his first start after the All-Star break Saturday in Fenway Park against Toronto, has a 10-6 record with a 3.84 earned run average. Only three major leaguers have won more games. Beckett and the Indians' C.C. Sabathia have a dozen wins apiece, while John Lackey of the Angels has 11. Matsuzaka is fifth in the majors with 123 strikeouts, sixth in strikeouts per nine innings with 9.25. He leads the Sox in pitches thrown (1,977), and only Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs has averaged more pitches per start (111.95 to 109.83).

In six starts before last Sunday, when the Tigers hit three home runs and scored six times in five innings in a 6-5 Sox loss in Detroit, Matsuzaka had a 1.29 ERA while striking out 51 and allowing just one home run in 42 innings.

"I wouldn't say that I'm satisfied with any one particular thing," Matsuzaka said when asked to assess his performance, "but at the very least, I can say that I've been able to stay healthy and maintain my spot in the rotation without missing any starts so far. Dissatisfied? I think I still feel I haven't really pitched the way I'd like to yet."

General manager Theo Epstein has arrived at a similar conclusion.

"We forced ourselves during the acquisition process to look at this as a six-year or longer period for evaluation and impact on the organization," Epstein said, "so it would be foolish to dissect the first three months except to say he's done a fantastic job of adjusting to new circumstances and performing well. He's set an excellent baseline performance, and I think there are a lot of reasons to think it's only going to get better."

The Sox, Werner said, tried to "tamp down expectations" coming into the season. Allowances had to be made for the myriad changes coming at Matsuzaka, not the least of which has been adjusting to a baseball that is slicker and has higher seams than the one used in Japan, and has impacted his grip.

"I think his stuff is going to get better," Epstein said. "I think he's pitched very, very well, one of the better pitchers in the American League. [But] I think his stuff has room to grow. I think there were pitches that were consistently plus-plus pitches in Japan and have been less consistently dominant here.

"His fastball is about what it should be, but his changeup was a more consistently dominant pitch in Japan. He's still working on that here. His slider, I still think we'll see a better one. That makes me excited about what is yet to come.

"That said, he's had well-above-average stuff and knows how to use it. He's been a warrior out there for us. It's the farthest thing from a criticism. It's exciting, knowing there is room to grow as he adjusts to the baseball, the rotation, and gets his feet under him."

The thing that has surprised Henry most, sitting in his private box at Fenway, is the degree of Matsuzaka's competitiveness.

"When I was first around him," Henry said, "I thought he was easygoing, but he's not when he's on the mound. He shows his competitiveness more than I thought he would. He's really focused and determined. It's like Curt [Schilling], but in a different way. Sometimes I feel like Curt is pitching on will alone. You see evidence of that strong will to excel [in Matsuzaka].

"It's visible. It's palpable on the mound. You see that he places a lot of pressure on himself."

Matsuzaka is so competitive, he still bristles at having had to issue an intentional walk to slugger Barry Bonds, and in the first inning no less, when the Giants visited last month. The pride factor is obvious.

"On a very personal level, the intentional walk as a strategy is not something I'm either used to or want to have to rely on a lot as a pitcher," said Matsuzaka, who in Japan seldom had walked a batter intentionally, never in the first inning.

So, was he worth the money?

"I've been very happy with what I've seen," Henry said. "And he just seems to be hitting his stride now.

"Matsuzaka-san was a key acquisition for the franchise over our upcoming six years. There was and is risk involved, but we were also aware that he could anchor a very solid rotation that could include Beckett, [Jon] Lester, [Clay] Buchholz, and [Jonathan] Papelbon for many years."

Werner, too, strikes a cautionary note when talking about a player in whom the Sox have made a six-year commitment.

"Who knows what's going to happen?" he said. "Injuries are always a concern. But for the first half of his first season, this has been one of the great decisions we've made. I don't want to jinx it. If he plays at this level, it will be great, but I think his maturity will make him an even better pitcher."

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

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