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Even bigger sensation

An ex-Yomiuri Giant, reliever Okajima cheered wildly by Japanese fans during a Red Sox exhibition win

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 24, 2008

TOKYO - They were already standing, the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" just having been completed. But that didn't stop the Tokyo Dome crowd from remaining on its feet, from raising a raucous cheer, from taking so many photographs it looked like the first pitch of a World Series game yesterday in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Hideki Okajima was back in the Tokyo Dome, his home stadium for 11 years with the Yomiuri Giants, one of whom (Yoshitomo Tani) stood in the batter's box to face the player everyone in the park wanted to see. Mostly, it seemed, through the lenses of their cameras.

"That was a great feeling, pitching in a big crowd like this, with big support from the fans," Okajima said, through interpreter Jeff Yamaguchi, before cracking a joke. "I thought, I'm retiring."

When the Red Sox got to Japan, it was not only a homecoming for Daisuke Matsuzaka. It was one, obviously, for Okajima as well. And while much of the focus was on Matsuzaka, as it has been throughout his tenure with the Sox, there was still anticipation for Okajima's first appearance. Which, it just so happened, came against those Giants.

Back home. Back in his old stadium. Back in his comfort zone. It was, as Sox manager Terry Francona noted, a change of sorts for Okajima. Instead of the other relievers taking Okajima out, say, to a restaurant, for the first time he was the one leading the group.

Though the Japanese fans haven't yet had a chance to welcome Matsuzaka back, Okajima did quite nicely yesterday. In fact, despite getting through the entire postseason, when asked the last time he had seen that many camera flashes, Francona said, "When Daisuke faced Ichiro."

But yesterday, Okajima was the one everyone wanted to see. Interview, too.

Not long after he pitched, and before the game had ended, Okajima stood in a hallway leading from the Sox dugout to the clubhouse, with a multicolored, multi-logoed wooden board behind him and dozens of media members in front of him. The contingent, Japanese and American, was so large that Julian Tavarez and Manny Delcarmen were forced to slip behind the signage, squeezing between that and the wall, to get to where they were going.

Even the opposing manager, Tatsunori Hara, who had both played with Okajima and managed him with the Giants, spoke of the reliever with fondness.

"He is someone I have fought side by side with," Hara said, according to Globe translator Daigo Fujiwara. "I feel real happy that he has been such an important player for the Red Sox, and I'm looking forward to how he pitches in his second year."

Okajima is not the same pitcher as he was with the Giants. During his career in Japan, Okajima's signature pitch was the curveball, and it was expected to be the same in the United States. But, as Okajima said in an interview in Japanese printed in the major league program for the series, he had trouble throwing the curve with the Sox because of the seam on the balls, as opposed to the ones used in Japan. His finger would slip and the ball wouldn't go where he wanted in the major leagues.

So he refined the changeup that vaulted him among the elite relievers, into the choice for Francona when Jonathan Papelbon wasn't available.

"Different pitcher," Okajima said, of his tenures in Japan and Boston. "Mentally I'm different. I am enjoying Major League Baseball - [I'm] a totally different pitcher now."

That seems true. But when asked about the evolution of his former teammate and protege, Hara gave a half-answer. He did, however, reflect on the biggest moment of the night. A night on which fans cheered - and photographed - when Tani flied to center, when Hayato Sakamoto singled, and when Noriyoshi Ohmichi lined into a double play to finish the appearance for the lefty.

"Okajima both started and closed for the Giants and was one of the more popular players with Giants fans, including myself," Hara said. "Tonight's applause may have been the biggest he's received here."

And, likely, anywhere else.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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