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Despite windfall, Seibu has struggled without Matsuzaka

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / March 25, 2008

TOKOROZAWA, Japan -The $51.1 million posting fee the Red Sox paid for Daisuke Matsuzaka?

"He's a Japanese superstar - he deserved it and more," said Hideaki Wakui, a 21-year-old pitcher for Matsuzaka's former team, the Seibu Lions, whose pedigree bears remarkable similarities to Matsuzaka's, right down to the red highlights added to his hair.

Like Matsuzaka, Wakui starred at Yokohama High School, made his reputation at the Koshien, Japan's wildly popular national high school baseball tournament, was drafted No. 1 by Seibu, and last season won 17 games while establishing himself as the team's ace after Matsuzaka's departure.

It may not yet be clear whether Matsuzaka was truly worth the investment made by the Sox, whose total bill for him was $103.1 million, including the $52 million in salary they are paying him over six seasons. But the financial windfall reaped by Seibu, which plays in this suburb 17 miles west of downtown Tokyo, hardly has offset the team's reversal of fortune in the 16 months since it elected to part ways with Japan's equivalent of Michael Jordan.

There have been material improvements from the posting money, which came to about $36 million after taxes. The team spent $13 million on a high-definition video scoreboard, an artificial playing surface, new restrooms, and padded outfield fences. Club officials said they intend to spend an additional $17 million on the construction of new field seats, a new lower concourse, and handicapped-accessible elevators.

But last season, Seibu, which had not finished lower than third in 25 years, finished fifth in the six-team Pacific League, the Lions' worst performance since the railway company took ownership of the team in 1979. The manager, former star catcher Tsutomo Ito, who had been with the club since 1984, resigned, saying he accepted responsibility for the team's poor showing.

But that may have been the least of Seibu's problems. Last spring, the team was caught in a bribery scandal, found to have made under-the-table payments to two amateur players, which led to revelations of a pattern of illegal payments to 170 amateur coaches and administrators that had been going on for years. The team was fined 30 million yen (more than $300,000) and forced to forfeit its top two choices in that June's amateur draft, the first time any team had been stripped of picks since the draft was instituted in 1965. The team's acting owner and president, Hidekazu Ota, was demoted to vice president.

The team's top slugger, first baseman Alex Cabrera, who led the league in home runs in 2006 and hit 27 more last season, was implicated as a steroid user in the Mitchell Report and left after the season as a free agent. The club denied that his alleged steroid use was a factor in not re-signing him.

The team paid pitcher Jason Johnson, who made a horrific cameo appearance for the Red Sox in 2006 (0-4, 7.36 ERA), nearly $3.5 million as a free agent to join its staff. Johnson, plagued by elbow problems, appeared in just seven games for the Lions, and won just once. He regularly complained about Japan on his blog and was released before the end of the season; he was in Dodgers camp this spring.

The club was forced to change the name of its stadium from Goodwill Dome to Seibu Dome after cutting ties with the company that owned the naming rights; an affiliate of that company was found to have violated labor laws in how it used temporary workers.

In a country with a sizable Buddhist population (44 percent) that views karma as an article of faith, there may be more than a few people who believe Seibu is suffering some serious retribution for letting Matsuzaka go.

It certainly makes "No Limit in 2008," the team's slogan for this season, which began with Wakui losing, 2-1, to the Orix Buffaloes last Wednesday night, appear wildly optimistic.

A Maine connection

Matsuzaka could have left Seibu as a free agent one month into this season, a big reason the team felt justified in parting ways with the 27-year-old righthander in the prime of his career.

"Before posting, three things were considered," said club spokesman Koji Takeuchi. "How Daisuke felt about it, how the fans felt, and how the team felt. It wasn't about having to sell our fans on it.

"In deciding how to use the posting fee, we wanted to return a favor to the fans. We wanted to use the money to acquire foreign players to keep the team competitive, and we wanted to use it to develop our minor league system."

The cash was a welcome infusion for a company whose former owner, Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, was once described as the world's wealthiest man but last year was taken off Forbes's international list of billionaires, the result of an insider-trading scandal several years ago and other economic downturns.

And among the new foreign players imported by Seibu is a pitcher from Bangor, Maine - Matt Kinney, who was Maine's Mr. Baseball in 1995, was drafted by the Red Sox, and had his heart broken three years later when the Sox sent him to the Minnesota Twins. Plagued by elbow problems and bouts of wildness, Kinney appeared in just 103 big-league games while bouncing around five organizations.

But unlike the disenchanted Johnson, Kinney said he jumped at the chance to sign with the Lions, even though his wife, Megan, is five months' pregnant and the couple already has an 8-month-old son, Maddox. His willingness to adapt is evident by his taking the subway back and forth to the ballpark, his 6-foot-5-inch stature making him an object of great curiosity, especially among kids.

"After the first week or so of spring training and just getting used to the way they do things, it turned back into baseball," said Kinney, 31, who in blue jeans and backward baseball cap looked like a postgraduate exchange student as he spoke with a reporter on his commute.

"They're a little bit more gung-ho in spring training. They do a lot more conditioning. Once you get through that first week, when they just try to kill you conditioning-wise, then it becomes baseball.

"The only thing that cracked me up was when I did my press conference and one of the reporters asked me, 'Do you feel any pressure coming over here trying to take Daisuke's spot?' I said, 'I don't think that's something I'm thinking about, because he did pretty well over here.' "

Whole new world

Kinney is going through the adjustments Matsuzaka made with the Sox last season, but in reverse. The Japanese ball is smaller and not as slippery, the mound is soft instead of firm, starters work just once a week instead once every five days and throw longer bullpens on their off-days, and the language and food are alien.

"We've always said when guys came over that they should try to learn our language, and that's what I've tried to do," said Kinney, who went out and bought "Japanese for Dummies." "I've been asking guys questions, trying to learn.

"Just going to McDonald's and ordering is tough. I'm trying new food, too. I like things like shabu-shabu [thinly sliced beef and vegetables]. I haven't really gotten into the sushi yet.

"But I can now see how it is for a guy to go to a different culture and play baseball. You have to adapt to everything."

And while the Lions have moved on without Matsuzaka, the pitcher's presence is still felt. His former teammate and friend, closer Chikara Onodera, watched as Matsuzaka became the first of his countrymen to win a World Series game (Wakui, meanwhile, said he was asleep and saw the highlights). "The pride of Japan," said Onodera, who toasted his friend when the two reunited for dinner this offseason.

Matsuzaka's senpai, or mentor, former Seibu pitcher Takashi Ishii, retired last year and is now the team's assistant pitching coach.

"As a friend, I was saddened to see him go," Ishii said, "and I knew it would be a big loss for the Japanese baseball world to lose a pitcher like that. But I loved to see him compete in the major leagues, to see what level Japanese players can compete."

Ishii played golf this winter with Matsuzaka, who also showed up at his old ballpark to work out.

"He spoke about the great charisma of Jason Varitek," Ishii said.

Kinney said it's not hard to find reminders of Matsuzaka in the Seibu clubhouse.

"You see a lot of guys with Red Sox stuff here because of Daisuke," he said. "A lot of guys who played with him have Red Sox stuff. You'll see T-shirts and stuff, a shirt or hat, hanging in their lockers."

Yesterday, Kinney made his Seibu debut and, like Wakui, pitched well but was a 2-1 loser to Orix. No limits in 2008? Of course there are, but after the disaster of last season, there is hope for a better day.

Globe designer Daigo Fujiwara served as translator for this report. Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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